Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The case for a scaled tariff

Obviously, the jobs situation in the United States right now is not pretty. Unemployment remains high (and of course that does not include people who have stopped looking for work). Median inflation-adjusted wages have been stagnant for at least the past 10 years, if not the past 30. Income inequality is at an almost all-time high. Part of the current employment crisis stems from the Great Recession and the stalled recovery, but things have been trending badly for lower-middle-class workers since well before then.

Those on the right tend to blame excessive taxes and regulations which have hurt business, and they definitely have a point. But it's only half the picture. The other half is simple economics: if business owners can reduce costs by using automated labor or outsourcing their labor overseas instead of hiring American workers, they probably will. And they have. The manufacturing sector, in particular, has declined from 26% of all employment to 13% in the past 40 years, largely a result of technology and outsourcing. Some on the left gloomily predict that technology and globalization will lead to a steady decline in working-class jobs (leaving only a middling number of higher-paying jobs for well-educated or highly trained people) and result in cataclysmic income inequality. Predictably, they call for a large federal entitlement for everyone to "solve" the problem.

Clearly, a large new entitlement would result in much more centralized power, less economic freedom, and less incentive to work. Trying to curtail technological innovation would have the same effect. And according to classical economic theory, high tariffs only serve to protect inefficient import-competing industries while inviting retaliatory tariffs that hurt more efficient exporting industries.

The thing is, that theory only holds when trade is fairly balanced. The problem is that the US has a massive trade deficit with a number of developing countries (led by China) who limit their imports. So while we lose lots of jobs to outsourcing and imports from countries with lower labor costs, because of the trade deficit we gain a comparatively tiny number of jobs in exporting industries.

One possible solution, proposed by two authors at the American Thinker, is called a scaled tariff (look at the end of the article). In a scaled tariff, the tariff rate for each country is proportional to our trade deficit with that country. Thus the tariff would disappear once trade is balanced. Balancing trade might be one way to preserve our manufacturing jobs and our status as the world's dominant economic power.

1 comment: