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January 09, 2020

Economic Buzzphrase of the Faux-Intellectual: "Tariffs are a tax on consumers"

"Tariffs are a tax on consumers." This ridiculous line has been repeated by so many faux-intellectuals that it deserves to be parodied in the manner of "learn to code." Every "free trade conservative" seems to have written or tweeted that brief line, with smug condescension toward all the rest of us who don't try to sum up the complexities of international trade in six words. For the purpose of brevity, I am going to refer to any person who has said "Tariffs are a tax on consumers" as a "TAATOC", because it is easier to repeatedly type than "smug poser."

At its most elementary, a tariff on Chinese exports is not a tax on consumers if the product's sourcing moves to another country that is not similarly tariffed. I know of multiple companies who have moved product manufacturing or sourcing from China to India, Vietnam, Latin America, or the United States. Just like that, the tariff burden was relieved on both the importer and the consumer. And just like that, the TAATOCs were also proved wrong.

TAATOCs are so in love with their righteous ignorance that it never even crosses their mind that there are many other countries to trade with other than China. They just happened to see that great line referring to tariffs as a "tax on consumers" in Paragraph 1 of Page 1 of a 600-page economics book, and that is all the TAATOCs needed to read to consider themselves economic experts. They are so woefully uneducated that they cannot understand the difference between a tariff on one country and a tariff on ALL countries. When they drop the "tariffs are a tax on consumers" line they do so with the unwarranted confidence of a child screaming "Checkmate" just before he loses his Queen.

But the idiocy of TAATOCs goes further. They consider themselves free-trade purists - all for the benefit of the consumer - which is kind of like a pacifist who considers himself a purist for peace.

The TAATOC will gladly allow a hostile foreign nation to place tariffs and total trade barriers on our exports, while also using child labor, stealing our intellectual property, and eliminating the jobs and spending power of the heralded American consumer, all without the USA imposing any retaliatory tariffs or barriers to our own market. This is about as admirable as the pacifist who would allow an enemy to violate his wife and shoot his son without attempting to defend them, because he is so staunchly principled in his pacifism.

But in actuality, TAATOCs aren't truly principled. It soon becomes evident that they are actually unprincipled partisans who just want to do some peacocking and pretend that they are smarter than Trump. When China threatened to retaliate with new tariffs on US farm exports, the TAATOCs suddenly (and for the first time) spoke out about the harm of Chinese tariffs – in this case how Chinese tariffs would harm US farmers. Their motivation of course was a partisan dig at Trump, but did these guys suddenly forget their focus on cheaper prices for US consumers?

A foreign tariff that effectively prohibited the export of US agricultural products would create a domestic glut of farm goods – driving down prices for US consumers!

Isn't lower consumer prices what the TAATOCs are all about? They’ve been doing grave dances for years on lost US manufacturing jobs, because exporting those jobs meant lower consumer prices. You’d think that squeezing US farmers would also fill them with glee if it helped lower prices for their beloved "consumer."

For a moment, however, let's pretend that TAATOCs really are principled. Darn near every one of them is also a proponent of a vigorous and muscular US military presence around the globe. The defense budget is a tax on – wait for it – every tax-paying US consumer. If taxing Americans to pay for the military component of our national defense is an acceptable tax, would it not be acceptable to have a "tax on consumers" to prevent a hostile foreign power from having dangerous control of the US economy.

Further, would these highly principled TAATOCs be agreeable to having China and Russia provide 100% of America's machinery of war if it was cheaper than contracting it out to US defense contractors? Would TAATOCs be agreeable to importing 100% of America’s food – putting every farmer and rancher out of business – if it were a little cheaper for US consumers? If so, then maybe they really are principled. And if so, they are also dangerous people who need to be ignored in the name of national security.

But of course, they’re not. They’re not principled economists, or principled free-traders, or principled anythings. Anyone stating "Tariffs are a tax on consumers" is a faux-intellectual poser repeating a six-word talking point to try to impress other faux-intellectual posers.

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