Because the United States takes a free trade public position, many people assume the U.S. government has few tariffs. Information about U.S. trade is readily available online.
For example, you can review the U.S. government’s current tariffs at the U.S. Office of Tariff Affairs and Trade Agreements site (www.usitc.gov/tata/index.htm). However, with many schedules and fine distinctions made within product groups, this site can be a challenge to browse. For interesting statistics on imports and exports of the United States, as well of as other nations, check out the World Trade Organization website at www.wto.org.
In general, two conclusions can be derived from economic analysis of the effect of import tariffs.1 First, tariffs are generally pro-producer and anti-consumer. While they protect producers from foreign competitors, this restriction of supply also raises domestic prices. For example, a study by Japanese economists calculated that tariffs on imports of foodstuffs, cosmetics, and chemicals into Japan cost the average Japanese consumer about $890 per year in the form of higher prices.2 Almost all studies find that import tariffs impose significant costs on domestic consumers in the form of higher prices.3
Second, import tariffs reduce the overall efficiency of the world economy. They reduce efficiency because a protective tariff encourages domestic firms to produce products at home that, in theory, could be produced more efficiently abroad. The consequence is an inefficient utilization of resources. For example, tariffs on the importation of rice into South Korea have led to an increase in rice production in that country; however, rice farming is an unproductive use of land in South Korea. It would make more sense for the South Koreans to purchase their rice from lower-cost foreign producers and to utilize the land now employed in rice production in some other way, such as growing foodstuffs that cannot be produced more efficiently elsewhere or for residential and industrial purposes.
Sometimes tariffs are levied on exports of a product from a country. Export tariffs are far less common than import tariffs. In general, export tariffs have two objectives: first, to raise revenue for the government, and second, to reduce exports from a sector, often for political reasons. For example, in 2004 China imposed a tariff on textile exports. The primary objective was to moderate the growth in exports of textiles from China, thereby alleviating tensions with other trading partners.
A subsidy is a government payment to a domestic producer. Subsidies take many forms, including cash grants, low-interest loans, tax breaks, and government equity participation in domestic firms. By lowering production costs, subsidies help domestic producers in two ways: (1) competing against foreign imports and (2) gaining export markets. According to the World Trade Organization, in mid-2000 countries spent some $300 billion on subsidies, $250 billion of which was spent by 21 developed nations.4 In response to a severe sales slump following the global financial crisis, between mid-2008 and mid-2009 some developed nations gave $45 billion in subsidies to their automobile makers. While the purpose of the subsidies was to help them survive a very difficult economic climate, one of the consequences was to give subsidized companies an unfair competitive advantage in the global auto industry.
A payment made by the government to producers of a good or service, which is intended to lower their costs.
Agriculture tends to be one of the largest beneficiaries of subsidies in most countries. The European Union has been paying out about €44 billion annually ($55 billion) in farm subsidies. In May 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law a bill that contained subsidies of more than $180 billion for U.S. farmers spread over 10 years. This was followed in 2007 by a farm bill that contained $286 billion in subsidies for the next 10 years. The Japanese also have a long history of supporting inefficient domestic producers with farm subsidies. The accompanying Country Focus looks at subsidies to wheat producers in Japan.
Nonagricultural subsidies are much lower, but they are still significant. For example, subsidies historically were given to Boeing and Airbus to help them lower the cost of developing new commercial jet aircraft. In Boeing’s case, subsides came in the form of tax credits for R&D spending or Pentagon money that was used to develop military technology, which then was transferred to civil aviation projects. In the case of Airbus, subsidies took the form of government loans at below-market interest rates.
The main gains from subsidies accrue to domestic producers, whose international competitiveness is increased as a result. Advocates of strategic trade policy (which, as you will recall from Chapter 6, is an outgrowth of the new trade theory) favor subsidies to help domestic firms achieve a dominant position in those industries in which economies of scale are important and the world market is not large enough to profitably support more than a few firms (aerospace and semiconductors are two such industries). According to this argument, subsidies can help a firm achieve a first-mover advantage in an emerging industry (just as U.S. government subsidies, in the form of substantial R&D grants, allegedly helped Boeing). If this is achieved, further gains to the domestic economy arise from the employment and tax revenues that a major global company can generate. However, government subsidies must be paid for, typically by taxing individuals and corporations.
Whether subsidies generate national benefits that exceed their national costs is debatable. In practice, many subsidies are not that successful at increasing the international competitiveness of domestic producers. Rather, they tend to protect the inefficient and promote excess production. One study estimated that if advanced countries abandoned subsidies to farmers, global trade in agricultural products would be 50 percent higher and the world as a whole would be better off by $160 billion.5 Another study estimated that removing all barriers to trade in agriculture (both subsidies and tariffs) would raise world income by $182 billion.6 This increase in wealth arises from the more efficient use of agricultural land. For a specific example, see the Country Focus on wheat subsidies in Japan.
IMPORT QUOTAS AND VOLUNTARY EXPORT RESTRAINTS
An import quota is a direct restriction on the quantity of some good that may be imported into a country. The restriction is usually enforced by issuing import licenses to a group of individuals or firms. For example, the United States has a quota on cheese imports. The only firms allowed to import cheese are certain trading companies, each of which is allocated the right to import a maximum number of pounds of cheese each year. In some cases, the right to sell is given directly to the governments of exporting countries. Historically, this is the case for sugar and textile imports in the United States. However, the international agreement governing the imposition of import quotas on textiles, the Multi-Fiber Agreement, expired in December 2004.