Posted by Amy Frushour Kelly. Associate Editor
The U.S.-China trade war is having a significant effect on commerce, seeing Chinese imports and exports at a record 28-month low and causing major tech manufacturers like GoPro to pull their factory work from China (“production will continue in China for non-U.S.-bound cameras,” according to NBC News). All this despite the 90-day truce called by President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 Summit in Argentina earlier this month.
In an exclusive interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Friday, American political advocate Grover Norquist asserted that “Tariffs are taxes. … It's a weapon, tariffs, that raise[s] the costs of goods and services on Americans. Tariffs on Chinese goods are paid by American consumers.” Full disclosure: Mr. Norquist is founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, a powerful conservative anti-tax organization, so he has an iron or two in this fire.
A tax, as we’re all well aware here at the REM Cycle, is any charge imposed by a government upon a taxpayer. Sales tax, use tax, estate tax, property tax, income tax, gift tax, yadda, yadda, yadda.
A tariff, however, is a special class of tax imposed only on imported (and, rarely, exported) goods and services between sovereign states. Tariffs are used to restrict trade of these imported goods and services by increasing their price, making them more expensive to consumers and theoretically encouraging domestic trade. Tariffs are therefore useful to governments as a means of shaping trade policy.
But there’s a big difference between the U.S. government and the average U.S. consumer. Let’s rephrase the previous paragraph: a tariff is a sales tax on goods and services from a certain foreign country. The tax is imposed at the port of entry and paid by the importer, then presumably passed on to the consumer: for instance, the person buying a GoPro or an iPhone.
So is our pal Grover right? Will tariffs on Chinese-made products effectively raise taxes on Americans?
Probably—at least in the short term. Savvy Chinese manufacturers will do all they can to avoid incurring the tariff. Some are already doing this by finishing assembly in nearby nations or shipping via Vietnam. And there is still the possibility that Mr. Trump and Mr. Jinping will make good on their 90-day deadline to end the trade war. However, all these solutions take time to implement, and the trade war already has been raging for several months. Here’s hoping for a holiday ceasefire.