International Trade in Modern Principles

The Trump tariffs are the biggest change in trade policy since Smoot-Hawley. Whatever the economic merits of the Trump tariffs, they make great material for textbook authors! As we illustrate in the new edition of Modern Principles, drawing on a great paper by Flaaen, Hortaçsu and Tintelnot. The excerpt illustrates our approach throughout our textbook, Modern Principles, modern applications.


Now that you know how to analyze international trade using demand and supply, let’s see how well the theory holds up by looking at what happened in the market for washing machines after the Trump tariffs were put into place in January of 2018. The tariff came in two parts. The first 1.2 million washing machines were taxed at a rate of 20% and all remaining imports were taxed at a rate of 50%. The tariffs were put in place for three years with slight declines (to 18% and 45% and 16% and 40%) in the 2nd and 3rd year respectively. A 50% tariff on washing machine parts was also included to prevent manufacturers from avoiding the duty by shipping parts to the United States for quick assembly.

Before the tariffs were put into place, about 3.8 million washing machines were imported per year. Once the tariffs began, imports declined by 1.2 million units to approximately 2.6 million washing machines per year. Figure X shows the price index for laundry equipment in the United States. Prices for washer and dryers had been declining since at least 2013, but the moment tariffs were imposed prices jumped dramatically. (Slight declines in prices were also seen in 2019 when the tariff rate decreased modestly).

Economists estimate that the tariff increased the price of washing machines by about 12%. That’s actually a smaller increase in price than one might guess from the size of the tariff but it turns out that dryer prices also increased by about 12%. Dryers were not subject to the tariff. So why did dryer prices increase? Washers and dryers are typically bought together in a package. Manufacturers, therefore, tend to focus on the package price and they “smoothed” out the washer tariff over both washers and dryers. Looking at thousands of goods, economists estimated that the Trump tariffs were on average entirely passed on to consumers, just as the simple supply and demand model predicts.

Another important prediction of the supply and demand model is that the tariff will increase the prices of all washing machines, whether produced domestically or imported. When the tariff is first put into place, domestic producers have lower costs than foreign producers and, as a result, they sell more and increase output. As domestic producers increase their output, however, their costs rise until in equilibrium domestic and foreign producers are, once again, selling for the same price. In fact, this is exactly what happened. Domestic producers like Whirlpool raised their prices at least as much as did foreign producers.

The Trump tariffs did have one unexpected consequence. In the model, it’s natural to think of domestic producers as being domestically owned firms, but that is not necessarily the case. Whirlpool, a domestic producer of washing machines, did produce more because of the tariffs but something else happened. The foreign producers, Samsung and LG, expanded their US factories! That’s good for US workers in the washer and dryer industry. Nevertheless, the expansion of Samsung and LG was probably an unwelcome surprise to Whirlpool, which may have expected that the tariffs would give them more of a competitive advantage in the domestic market than they ended up getting.

The increase in domestic production from both domestically owned and foreign owned firms resulted in about 1800 new jobs in the washer and dryer industry. Remember trade policy does not influence the total number of jobs in an economy. The jobs created in the washer and dryer industry came at the expense of jobs lost in US export industries. The new jobs in the protected industry, however, are visible and they are important politically, because the President can point to them as a benefit of his policies. Thus, it’s an interesting question to ask, how much did consumers pay to create these jobs?

The tariffs increased washer and dryer prices by about 12% or $88 each on combined sales of 17.4 million units. The total cost to consumers, therefore, was approximately $1.56 billion per year. The government took in an extra $82.2 million in tariff revenues, which we count as a plus, so the total cost was about $1.46 billion per year. The cost per job created was therefore a whopping $811,000 per job (1.46 billion/1800). Instead of creating jobs by paying more for washers and dryers, US consumers would have been much better off paying each new worker in the laundry industry $100,000 to enjoy a nice vacation!


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