Just Use Tariffs

April 16, 2021


The above-linked article is an interesting case study of the challenges involved in bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. The product in question is a semiconductor – a “chip” – that is in such short supply that it has forced the shutdown of some auto production in the U.S. The Biden administration is looking at ways to break our dependence on imported semiconductors.

Oddly, the article begins with what seems to be an American manufacturer – On Semiconductor – supplying chips to to Hyundai in South Korea, perhaps because the Reuters author, Hyunjoo Jin, is herself Korean. You’d think that Reuters could find some American to write about the actual subject of the article – the challenges Biden faces in bringing chip manufacturing back to the states – but apparently they couldn’t. Maybe we first need to begin by bringing news reporting back to the U.S.? But I digress.

Never mind all that. The point of the article is the complex supply chain engaged in delivering a semiconductor chip to an auto manufacturer that could just as easily be General Motors in Detroit as Hyundai in South Korea. The author chronicles the myriad of steps that begins in Italy and makes its way through Taiwan, Singapore and China, just to name a few. So it’s not just a matter of building a chip factory here. It would require a daisy-chain of factories to turn silicon wafers into the actual semiconductor chips. So the Biden administration is faced with subsidizing a whole array of industries to entice them to move manufacturing to the U.S. It’s enough to make your head spin. The article concludes with “Simply throwing money at this does not solve the problem. It is a more complex problem.”

Moving that supply chain back to the U.S. is certainly a very complex problem. Negotiating subsidies with a dozen or more companies to entice them to make such a move would be difficult enough, not to mention expensive for American taxpayers, if that’s the approach that the government is considering. But there’s another much simpler solution – one so simple that it would require little more than the stroke of Biden’s pen. All he has to do is sign an executive order to levy tariffs on all manufactured products from the countries responsible for our twenty largest trade deficits. Each of the countries mentioned in this article as being involved in this supply chain – China, Taiwan, Singapore (a small city-state located in Malaysia) and Italy – are on that list, responsible for our largest, ninth largest, tenth largest and eleventh largest trade deficits respectively.

Here’s what would happen. Eager to mitigate the tariff, GM (for example) would soon move the final step in that process, the manufacturing of the chip, to a new plant in the U.S., perhaps as a subsidiary. Other potential suppliers like Japan, Vietnam, Mexico or others wouldn’t be viable options since they too are on the tariff list.

Next, that new GM chip-making subsidiary, eager to avoid tariffs on its supplies from Taiwan, would soon implement plans to develop a supplier in the U.S. Once established, that company in turn would soon make plans to source its silicon wafers from a new plant in the U.S. instead of from Italy.

The Biden administration, and whatever administrations succeed it, would barely have to lift a finger to make it happen and it wouldn’t cost American taxpayers one penny in higher taxes. Would it raise the price of semiconductors and, consequently, the price of new cars? Sure, but not much. A few bucks at the most. But, in terms of your purchasing power, they’d actually be cheaper when you factor in the upward pressure on wages – your wages – as the result of the demand for labor from this whole new U.S.-based semiconductor supply chain.

There are two elements of a tariff plan that would be critical to making it effective. First of all, by targeting those twenty nations that are responsible for our biggest trade deficits, the tariffs would eliminate from consideration all those grossly overpopulated nations with bloated labor forces who prey on the American economy. When Trump enacted tariffs on Chinese products, suppliers simply moved their operations to some other such country like Vietnam or Mexico. Those wouldn’t be viable options if moving there failed to eliminate the tariffs.

Secondly, the tariffs must be applied to all manufactured products from those countries. Why? Because otherwise, making our autos more expensive would put them at a disadvantage to autos imported from those countries, but not if those imported autos are subject to the same tariffs. For example, suppose that the tariff is 50%. That tariff might raise the price of an American car by 25%, let’s say. But you’d still opt for the American car if cars from Mexico, Japan, Korea, China, Italy, etc. are priced 50% higher. Now we’re not talking about just cars, but every single manufactured product you can imagine. The manufacturing of every one of them would come back to the U.S. since American-made products would then be the cheaper option for American buyers.

By the way, there’s another factor to consider here. If you’re a globalist, you may be turned off by a proposal that seems “protectionist.” But if you are a globalist, you’re probably also a person who’s concerned about the environment. In all of the talk about fossil fuels and CO2 emissions, you never, ever hear mention of the role of the global supply chain in “fueling” the problem. Did you know that the ships that transport manufactured goods back and forth across oceans and around the globe, goods that could just as easily be made locally, burn five billion barrels of oil per year? Think about that. If the Biden administration really wants to have an impact on climate change, implementing this tariff plan is probably the best place to start.