Peter's Coat and the Tariff
THE builder was in an expansive mood. The trade was recorded and he had no hope of more deals. He was minded to be frank, recklessly frank.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I built those houses, and I put the prices a little too high. I figured that as the winter came on and people came back from the country they would just have to buy. I set my traps — but somehow the rabbits did n’t run.’
Often we have recalled that conversation, Dai and I, as we have wrestled with the stream of problems which a home entails. We have repeated the contractor’s phrases with sardonic emphasis: ‘Traps for rabbits; and we are the quarry when we run true to expectation, and homes such as this are the traps!’ Why not? Was not the builder telling the truth as he saw it? His words may have been bitter because of his disappointment, but at worst he was no hypocrite. Does not everyone treat the consumer as a rabbit — a rather foolish wild creature, too easily caught to be game for the sportsman, but plentiful enough to provide a living for those who put profits first?
We remembered the builder vividly one day when the time arrived for the annual budget-making of our small household. The prospect of smaller income-taxes gave a certain feeling of prosperity to the ever trying business of accommodating dollars of desire to dimes of income. Perhaps with the reduction of another year we might get another car. The paint on the family flivver had been a bit thin for a long time and its joints were undeniably creaky. Would n’t it be fine if economies by Uncle Sam were to permit us to make this desired purchase? We got pencils and paper, and began to make our estimates and to arrive at conclusions by an experimental balance.
The saving on the income tax was real and substantial. It would not purchase an automobile, but still it was the nucleus of a fund. We reckoned that the tax reduction put through Congress in 1923 will save us nearly $275. That was heartening. Then Dai turned to the items in the budget for which she is responsible.
‘Wait a minute,’ said she; ‘let’s see how food and clothing are coming out before we decide on anything else.’
‘Both should be cheaper,’ I replied, adding, with that fervor which a conjugal conference on the cost of living is so apt to inspire, ‘ it seems to me that a woman who uses business sense ought to spend less the further the war gets away. You don’t expect to pay war prices forever, do you?’
In such discussions wives are sometimes patient, and on this occasion the general manager of our home determined to be calmly explicit and tolerant. Ignoring the insinuation of extravagance, she resumed: —
‘Let’s examine a few details. Peter will of course have to have a new coat, and a suit, and at least two pairs of shoes before summer. I have not noticed any drop in prices. On the contrary, I fear I shall have to pay a little more. Is the war the only cause of high costs for clothing? What about the tariff? How does the tariff affect Peter’s new overcoat?’
The question was a fair one and we proceeded to search for the answer. Digging through the thickness of the Fordney-McCumber Act, we attempted to find items labeled ‘overcoats for five-year-olds.’ Detailed as it is, the tariff law is not quite so specific as the catalogues of mail-order houses; still the information was attainable. We discovered that wool clothing bears an import duty of sixty-five per cent.
‘How much was clothing taxed in 1922?’ asked the woman of the house.
‘The Underwood rate was thirtyfive per cent,’ I replied sadly, realizing already that I was beaten. But the boy’s mother was not content to let Peter’s overcoat disappear in vague estimates, so she continued: —
‘Then the tariff takes thirty per cent more than it did when we paid our 1922 income taxes. Let’s see how that works out. Two years ago, by careful shopping I found a satisfactory coat for $12.50, although I might easily have paid more. You know little boys’ coats are made in England — or at least fashioned after English models. Now we will assume that the shop which imported Peter’s coat paid $7.00 for it, duty and all, two years ago. That’s about right, is n’t it? ‘
I replied that I had been informed that the stores found it necessary to mark-up what they sold at retail by from seventy-five to one hundred per cent of the wholesale cost, and that accordingly her reckoning seemed tenable. She went on: —
‘Two years ago the duty, you say, was thirty-five per cent. Then the actual cost of Peter’s coat, as it arrived at the customhouse, was about $5.00. Now take a coat of similar quality, whose actual cost is still $5.00. The tariff increases its cost to about $8.25. The mark-up makes the $12.50 coat of two years ago worth about $15.00 this season. Is my calculation right?’
I could not controvert it in essentials. The discussion, however, had barely started. The homemaker was intent on pressing her advantage, and she continued: —
‘Very well. Now Peter needs other clothes, and so do Janet and Burnley. You remarked that your own overcoat had best be retired on account of age. You expect to buy one or two suits. You may think that you will economize and skip a season, but you know what happens: the first day the bright sunlight chances to light up a spot or a bald place on last year’s purchases you will go to the tailor. You always do. Does the tariff touch your clothes?’
‘The duty, madam,’ said I, with that dignity which the weak end of an argument often suggests, ‘is sixtyfive per cent.’
‘All right,’ she replied. ‘Now, strange as it may seem, I too wear clothes and occasionally — very occasionally, I may add — I must buy new ones. You realize that my trousseau of eleven years ago is hardly in style?’
I conceded as much, and we returned to finances. ‘ What is the duty on cotton?’ she asked.
‘Clothing is taxed at forty-five per cent,’ I answered, after delving through the pages of the Tariff Act. ‘Laces, however, pay sixty per cent.’
‘How about silk?’
Further inquiry showed that silk clothing must pay a duty of seventyfive per cent, while materials are rated at sixty per cent. Then she turned to her account book. She said: —
‘We actually spent but $600 for clothes two years ago. That was too little, according to the budget prepared by experts: as you know, they figure that at least twelve per cent of a family’s income should, or at least ordinarily does, go into clothes. But assuming that clothes for three children can be bought for as little as clothing for two infants — which is n’t so — and assuming that we had to buy only the articles which we purchased two years ago, how much does the tariff add to the bill?’
‘The increases vary greatly, but taking wool, cotton, and silk together, a fifteen-per-cent estimate would be an understatement,’ I ventured.
Dai picked up her pencil and made a quick calculation.
‘Fifteen per cent of $600 is $90,’ she remarked. ‘Now subtract that $90 from the $275 we shall save on income taxes. That leaves $185 as a start on your nest egg for the new automobile. You will have to save a while longer. But wait. How about food? Does the tariff touch that?’
The answer was ‘Yes,’ and we began to look for the items. ‘The duty on butter is twenty per cent,’ I remarked.
‘Oh yes, I remember now,’ she said; ‘don’t you recall that two years ago we were getting that good Danish butter five, six, and seven cents cheaper than the American creamery product? I have n’t seen any Danish butter for a long time. So that’s the reason. Read on. What are some of the other tariff rates?’
‘The duty on sugar,’ I discovered, ‘is thirty-three and one-third per cent. Candy is taxed at forty per cent. Canned fish and vegetables at twentyfive per cent. Flour takes a toll of thirty per cent. The price of eggs is increased eight cents a dozen. The price of poultry is six cents a pound higher. Shelled almonds cost fourteen cents a pound more than they would without a tariff. Rice bears a rate of one cent a pound. The desirable Scotch marmalade costs at least one third more because of the import duty. Lemons are rated at two cents a pound, oranges and grape fruit at one cent a pound.’ The list seemed endless.
‘But America produces most of the food we consume,’ the house-manager observed. Then she asked: ‘Do these duties affect the prices of what is grown and manufactured in this country? ‘
‘Well, rather — or else why have a tariff? For what purpose do you imagine the almond-growers of California demanded an impost of fourteen cents a pound on their crop? Why do the packers want a tariff of four cents a pound on lamb? Naturally the consumer pays the price at which the foreigner could send his products to America, plus the tariff. The idea is to raise the price so that the producer can get more. If American products were to be sold at the same price, regardless of import duties, Congress would never have a request for a tariff.’
‘ What, then, is the average duty on food?’
‘On the larger items a twenty-percent increase would be a just approximation. Two years ago food generally could be imported without paying any duty. One-fifth increase in the wholesale costs would be very conservative.’
Again the pencil was active. After making a few black marks on white paper, Dai looked up and said: —
‘Now I see. I have been wondering for months why my grocery bills kept so high. I have bought more closely recently, but the bills kept climbing. Food in 1922 cost us $1150. Now we spend about $116 a month. Twenty per cent increase over $1150 would be $1380. That is not far from the actual sum we shall spend in twelve months at the present rate. Get your pencil.
You saved $275 on taxes. The tariff on clothing, you figured, took away $90 of that, and I think you did not allow enough. At any rate you had left a saving of $185. Now food costs $230 more. Can you subtract $230 from $185?’
‘If you will give me a bottle of red ink, I will,’ was my grim rejoinder. ‘We have discussed just two items in our budget and already, instead of saving, we have a deficit of $45 — a minus quantity, do you understand? If this keeps up I shall have to ask for a Federal receivership. I certainly do not know how to live on a deficit.’
Neither does the lady to whom I said, ‘With all my worldly goods I thee endow,’ at a time when my estate consisted of four boxes of books, a student lamp, and a typewriter. She returned to her account book and, after a brief consideration, said: —
‘We have an item labeled “household furnishings.” It runs rather high, since year by year we have bought, what we could. We did not begin life with a well-furnished home, you know. We have got to have more furniture, and we must replace broken china and worn-out kitchen utensils. Has the tariff anything to say on this interesting subject?’
Once more I examined the pages of the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act. ‘Yes, it says quite enough,’ I replied, without much hope of making the evening cheerful. ‘Suppose I start with the A's. Aluminum is rated at eleven cents a pound and fifty-five per cent on its value. If instead of a kettle you buy something electrical, you may add another ten per cent. There has been, roughly, an increase in the tariff of forty to fifty per cent in the last two years. Do you use much aluminum?’
‘You know I have little else in the kitchen,’ was the answer. ‘But go on.'
‘Well, other household utensils now are rated at five cents a pound and thirty per cent on the cost paid by the importer. The increase in two years is ten per cent — approximately. The tariff on scissors has been trebled. Sewing machines are rated at fifteen to thirty per cent — but fortunately we don’t have to buy a new one every year. China and glass have been increased ten to fifteen per cent. Furniture is rated twenty-five and thirtyfive per cent higher. Brooms are up thirty per cent. Bread knives at least fifteen. Do you want to hear more?’
‘ I have heard nothing for some time,’ was the amiable reply. ‘I was thinking about that secretary I saw at the rooms of the dealer in old furniture, and wondering whether it would look better in my room or down here. How much did you say household goods have gone up?’
‘ Oh — be conservative and say ten per cent. Actually it is higher.’
‘All right. We have been spending about $300 a year on furnishings. Add ten per cent of that to your deficit and see if it is enough to buy a secretary even if the automobile has been lost.’
I assured my conferee that not even imaginary furniture could be paid for with an actual deficit; and besides that, even if the $75 were plus instead of minus, the wise old cabinetmaker would not take twice such a sum for the specimen she desired. By this time nothing seemed to matter much and so I continued to read, gleefully pursuing horrible details. My eyes rested at the line listing ‘dolls and toys.’
‘Do you want to know how much Uncle Sam contributed to a Merry Christmas?’ The most restrained curiosity was acknowledged.
‘All right. I’ll tell you, anyhow. Dolls, the grotesque bisque figures your daughters strew about the house, are taxed at the rate of just seventy per cent, and the pushmobile and the velocipede and the various other contraptions which your son permits me to pick up and put away every afternoon, when his interest in them has ceased, are rated at the same figure. I guess that of the $120 you spent making your progeny and your nephews and nieces happy at least half went into the tariff and the extra profits made possible thereby. I assume that enfranchised mothers will direct their intelligence to such affairs.’
‘How long have you been voting?’ was her question.
‘If you mean how old am I, no answer is needed. You recall my birthdays with a vividness and a precision which at times I am inclined to regret. If you mean how long have I and my forbears been entitled to play a part in political affairs, I should say at least seven hundred years — say, since the Magna Carta. But what of it?’
‘How long have we had tariffs?’ was her follow-up.
I attempted to retrieve my scant historical memories.
‘ Well — at least since the Constitution was written,’ I admitted. ‘ Yes, even before the Constitution was formed the tariffs ware levied. The colonies had their separate systems. In fact there is some reason to think that the need to abolish the colonial tariffs was one of the strongest influences making for the unity of the American States. But why do you ask that?’
‘I was just thinking,’ she responded. ‘Men of the privileged classes have had the vote in the English-speaking world some seven hundred years. The tariff system is at least as old as the Republic. How long has it taken the lords of creation to understand the intricacies of this little subject? How many women have asked for tariff protection? Did n’t I once hear something about “infant industries” when I was in school? Well, my industry is infants. What did you say the tax is on toys? I remember: seventy per cent. And how much is Peter’s coat taxed, and your suit, and my new outfit? Sixty-five per cent? What justification have men to offer for making it so difficult for their wives to buy the clothing essential to a family?’
‘One theory is that the high prices you pay make prosperity for American workmen,’ I replied. ‘At least that has been said since workingmen were given the vote a hundred years ago, although the idea — to be frank — was not invented so long as factory “hands” had no voice in politics.’
‘Does the sixty-five-per-cent boost in the price of Peter’s coat and other things actually make American workers prosperous?’ was her question.
‘It does not seem to have helped the textile-mill workers much. The looms have been still much of the time during recent months, and the wages paid have always been low — so low that once Congress was officially informed that not one man outside the executive force in a large textile centre earned enough, unaided, to support a family at any tolerable standard of living.’
‘Who then is benefited by the prices made higher through the tariff?’
‘America is the land of opportunity,’ said I, ‘and one of the most coveted opportunities is to get a favorable place in the tariff schedules. For example, the Census Bureau has lately reported that the value of aluminum products rose from $45,822,161 in 1921, the year before the tariff bill was passed, to $106,930,367 in 1923, the year after the law went into effect. Of course the tariff was not the only factor in the aluminum prosperity; monopoly also played its part in swelling fortunes already large. Our country is famous for the number of its rich men.’
‘Yes, I see. The tariff is very interesting. The government gives us one dollar back in income taxes, which we can see, and takes away two dollars in the indirect levies of the tariff, which we can’t see so plainly. Uncle Sam has strange ideas of economy, and he seems to have favorites among his nephews and nieces. I don’t believe women will be blind at the same spots or quite so partial in distributing benefits. But let’s get back to the budget. What were you saying about a new car? ‘