But do tariffs work? In the case of bedroom furniture, they’ve clearly helped slow China’s export machine. In 2004, before tariffs went into force, China exported $1.2 billion worth of beds and such to the United States. The figure last year was just $691 million.This may be a case where the differential tariff treatment between Chinese and Vietnamese furniture which resulted from the antidumping case induced "trade diversion" - i.e., an efficiency loss because the trade preferences result in imports coming from someplace other than the low cost producer. However, in this example, it could also be the case that comparative advantage shifted to Vietnam as China's labor costs have risen.
Over the same period, however, imports of the same goods from Vietnam — where wages and other costs are even lower than in China — have surged, rising from $151 million to $931 million. The loss of jobs in America, meanwhile, only accelerated.
The only Americans getting more work as a result of the tariffs are Washington lawyers, who have been hired by both U.S. and Chinese companies. Their work includes haggling each year over private “settlement” payments that Chinese manufacturers denounce as a “protection racket.”It is clear from the article that workers in the US industry have suffered from a disruptive wave of furniture imports. While it may indeed be the case that the US no longer has a comparative advantage in furniture production, standard comparative static trade theory fails to account for the adjustment costs associated with reallocating resources. That is, trade theory assumes full employment and that workers will be shifted to another sector, ignoring the fact that this process involves losing their jobs in one industry and, usually, a period of unemployment before finding a job in another.
Fearful of having their tariff rates jacked up, many Chinese furniture makers pay cash to their American competitors, who have the right to ask the Commerce Department to review the duties of individual companies. Those who cough up get dropped from the review list.
Although it is also less than perfect, a more appropriate remedy in this case would be the application of "safeguard tariffs" which the President can impose (following the recommendation of the International Trade Commission) in cases where industries are disrupted by import surges. Relative to antidumping tariffs, safeguards have the advantages of being (i) time limited, (ii) at the discretion of the president (who presumably can consider the interest of the nation as a whole, rather than just an affected industry or region), and (iii) not requiring any allegation of "unfair" trade practices on the part of the exporters (which are usually somewhat bogus).