Take TVs. Many flat-panel TV screens and their components are produced in China, where the labor is cheaper than in the United States. So what many Americans shop for over Thanksgiving weekend is intimately bound up in the global trading system. The cost of a typical flat-screen TV ranges from about $650 to more than $1,500—which reflects the cost of the component parts as well as research and development, plus markup. But imagine now that the component parts are suddenly 25 percent more expensive, because the tariff raises the cost of importing them. At the high end, that could push the cost of a television up toward $2,000. (Of course, the companies that make these TV sets might decide to reduce their profits in order to keep the prices constant, but don't bet on it.)
But it’s also significant that this is a relatively high-end good; the proposed U.S. tariffs focus on products Americans don’t import a lot of, which may minimize how widespread those tariffs’ impact is. A Bloomberg analysis noted that of the 1,300 products from China the U.S. has proposed targeting, only 70 were among the top 500 products the U.S. imported last year. “With specialty inputs and chemicals on the list, [the] effect may be confined to high-end manufacturing,” Caitin Webber, an intelligence analyst at Bloomberg, said on Twitter.
More broadly, if some Chinese-made products become more expensive for American consumers, it may seem like a blessing for U.S. manufacturers competing to sell the same types of products. But consumers, faced with a choice of two expensive goods—one made in China and the other in the U.S.—may simply buy neither. (Maybe you don’t really need a new flat-screen TV.) This would hurt the very same American companies Trump says he is trying to protect. They may be forced to lay off their workers. These laid-off workers themselves are consumers who, without an income, will buy less—leading to a spiral that could end with a recession.
For his part, President Trump, who was critical of China’s trade practices well before he entered the White House, appeared unperturbed about the possibility of a trade war. He asserted Wednesday the annual $500 billion U.S. trade deficit with China means “you can’t lose,” and that intellectual-property theft was costing the U.S. another $300 billion.
Although the deficit figures are indisputable, the merit of the president’s argument is not. (Many historians point out that trade wars aren’t good or particularly easy to win.) Kennedy said there is a broad consensus that China’s economic and trade practices are unfair “and because of China’s scale and size … this has major consequences.”
“These are genuinely justifiable concerns— and China deserves to be punished for them,” he said. “It’s just unclear whether the punishment ought to come through these unilateral measures that the Trump administration has taken or through … other ways to further constrain China so that they would have changed willingly. That’s what the debate is about.”