The Last Ironing Board to Die for a Mistake

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[Katherine Mangu-Ward]

Yesterday, The Washington Post told the sad story of the last ironing board factory in the United States. To protect the jobs of 200 workers, imported Chinese ironing boards are hit with tariffs from 70 to 150 percent.

Matt Yglesias blogs about the story here, and his analysis is spot on--tariffs cause deadweight losses, keep prices needlessly high, large-scale unemployment tends to inspire more protective tariffs, etc.--but he can't quite pull the trigger on condemning the whole charade. Why? As Nancy Pelosi would say: Jobs, jobs, jobs. A lost job looms larger in the imagination than a deadweight loss.

For math on how much those precious jobs cost, check out the envelope math over at the XKCD echo chamber or this calculation from econ textbook authors Luke Froeb and Brian McCann.

Their napkin math, simplified almost to the "assume the horse is a sphere" level, illustrates a very old, very basic idea: A tariff like this one is a rock thrown at America's front window. Broken windows employ glaziers, but that doesn't make teenage thugs the drivers of economic growth or defenders of American job security.

Econ 101 aside, though, there's a more compelling moral reason to condemn this kind of tariff that should help break deadlocks like Matt's: Jobs lost at home are usually jobs created elsewhere, typically in poorer countries. If anything, jobs are likely to be gained when an industry moves to China, where more aspects of the manufacturing and assembly process are done by hand. They just won't be created here. If that's your focus, you have to make the case that American jobs are intrinsically better or more valuable than Chinese jobs.

Talking about American jobs lost to trade is like giving casualty stats for a war and only counting dead U.S. soldiers. It's inaccurate, and it reveals a skewed, provincial view of the world.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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