Coming Clean on Washing Machine Tariffs

Jim Tankersley had a piece in the NYT this week on the cost per job saved of Trump’s tariffs on Chinese washing machines. According to the study, the cost per job saved was $817,000. While that is a steep tab, there are a few points that should be added to this sort of analysis.

First, if the point of the tariffs is to benefit workers, part of this $817,000 cost is going to higher pay to workers who would have jobs with or without the tariff. The study doesn’t look at the impact on wages of workers in the industry, but if the goal is to help workers who make washing machines, then this should be factored into the assessment.

The second point is that this is a partial equilibrium analysis. It doesn’t look at the overall effect on the economy of a reduction in the money we spend on importing washing machines. While this can be hard to assess, since imports of washing machines from China are a very small part of the total economy, other things equal we would expect that less money spent on imported washing machines would translate into a higher-valued dollar. (We are reducing the supply of dollars on world markets, thereby raising the price of dollars.)

This effect is almost certainly very small, but suppose that the reduced payments for imported washing machines raised the value of the dollar by just 0.01 percent. If this rise in the dollar were fully passed on in lower import prices (it isn’t), that would translate in a reduction in the cost of imports to US consumers of $320 million, more than 20 percent of the cost of the tariffs estimated in this study. Even if it would be hard to get any sort of precise numbers, the point is that this is an offsetting effect which could be large relative to the estimated cost of the tariffs.

The third point is that tariffs can sometimes make sense if they allow an industry breathing space to reorganize and regain competitiveness or serve some other goal (e.g. persuading a country to raise the value of its currency). In 1983, Ronald Reagan imposed tariffs on Japanese motorcycles in order to help out Harley Davidson. In 2006, when President George W. Bush wanted to tout the virtues of free trade, he visited a Harley Davidson factory in Pennsylvania which was a major producer of motorcycles for exports. It is unlikely that Harley Davidson would have been exporting motorcycles in 2006 without the tariffs that allowed it some breathing space in 1983.

Of course, none of this means that Trump’s washing machine tariffs are a good idea. If they are in fact part of a well-crafted trade and industrial policy strategy, he is managing to keep this strategy secret from just about everyone. It looks mostly like the main effect will just be that we pay more for washing machines, even if the story may not be quite as bad as advertised.

This piece first ran on Dean Baker’s blog.

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.