Think twice about tariffs, President Trump. Cheap imports keep your voters afloat.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty

By the end of this week, if the White House hasn’t just been posturing again, President Trump will punish China with as much as $60 billion in tariffs on imports. This is one of the rare Trump policies that will probably meet with approval from sizable factions in both parties, now that free trade is the common enemy of economic populists everywhere.

One place where the president’s economic first strike will not meet with applause, however, is among the nation’s largest retailers, and especially among the ubiquitous big-box stores you may shop at regularly or online, depending on where you live.

Earlier this week, several of the largest retailers — including Walmart, Target and Best Buy — sent a letter to Trump warning him of the dire consequences of tariffs. They pointed out that penalties on Chinese imports will mean higher prices on just about everything they sell, from clothing and shoes to video games and slime-making ingredients.

I’m no one’s idea of an economist (nor am I a former economist who spent the last 20 years or so entertaining people on cable TV in preparation for setting national policy), so I can’t really tell you what the overall effect of Trump’s tariffs will be. Some experts think they’ll spark an all-out trade war; others say the complexity of the global supply chain will limit the fallout.

Here’s my fear, though: To the extent that Trump’s program jacks up prices on imports at the big retailers, we’re not just talking about an impact on household budgets. We’re also pulling at one of the few remaining threads that may be keeping our society from spinning apart.

Whether you love or revile them (and I’ve had many moments of both), few things so nicely embody the feel of post-industrial America as the massive big-box stores that rose up to replace malls and department stores beginning in the 1980s.

Very few Americans have escaped the feeling of wandering through endless acreage of knock-off T-shirts, imported TVs and stereos, pain relievers and cereal boxes, board games and light bulbs and designer sunglasses, with automated price scanners and phones every few aisles and not a single bright-aproned employee within screaming distance.

It’s a lonely, soul-vaporizing and oddly exhilarating experience all at once. Every possible commodity is cheap and arrayed before you, without any sign of actual humanity. At least online you have reviews and recommendations; here, unless it’s the weekend or the holidays, it’s just you and the blinding fluorescent lights, the squeaky wheels of a cart, and the other passing zombies lost in a maze.

Liberals and their supporters in organized labor have always disdained the big-box stores as powerful drivers of a ruthless, globalized economy. There’s no way around it: They’ve undersold smaller competitors into the ground, while driving down wages and relying on part-time employees who usually lack basic benefits. In the service industry’s race to the bottom, Walmart is basically the pace car.

And yet the very thing that makes these stores so detestable — their single-minded obsession with lower costs at the expense of all else — is also the thing that makes them, in a lot of places, essential.

I remember Andy Stern, when he was the visionary leader of the nation’s largest service employees union in the mid-2000s, explaining to me why he was ambivalent about attacking Walmart the way some of his fellow organizers did.

“Walmart is the biggest tax break in America,” Stern said then, by which he meant that an awful lot of his members and other working-class Americans were only making ends meet because they were able to shop there. And stores like Walmart and Target often service areas where — thanks largely to their predatory ways — there isn’t much else around anymore.

I’ve long had another thought about these stores and the role they play, though. Which is that as much as modern big-box stores (and their online cousin, Amazon) may symbolize our struggle with the new economy, they also play a singular and unappreciated role in mitigating the social impact of inequality.

Here’s what I mean: Several years ago, my daughter, like a lot of yours, was obsessed with American Girl dolls. If you’ve been through this special kind of hell, you know that a new doll will cost well over $100.

Unless you’re incredibly affluent, taking your kid to the nearest American Girl store, with its hair salon and hospital servicing foot-tall plastic people, is bound to become a searing lesson in humility.

At Target or Walmart, however, you’ll find the Chinese-made equivalent, which doesn’t have the fancy tag, and maybe its eyes don’t close when you lay it down or something like that, but most little girls won’t care. That doll is probably going to run you less than 50 bucks — well within the Christmas budget of most families.

 

The point is that for a lot of Americans stuck on the wrong side of a growing economic divide, the big-box store and its cheap, Chinese-made imports, whether out by the Interstate or online, are the difference between being able to give your kid what every kid wants and having to say no. They’re the difference between feeling like your family can still be part of the American experience and feeling that, no matter how hard you work, we’ve left you completely behind.

And I worry about the effect of a trade war on this rickety bridge across the growing chasm of inequality.

You think we have anger and resentment now in parts of the country where the factories have shuttered and the banks are closing and families are coming unglued? Try raising prices on imported toys and cellphones and barbecues, just enough so that American families living on the edge of solvency can’t make the numbers work anymore.

See what happens to our already violent culture and our already brutal public discourse if parents have to tell their kids they can’t have the latest thing, because now even the knockoff version is 10 bucks more, and so are the school clothes and sneakers, and something’s got to give.

I’m not saying Trump shouldn’t care about China’s callous disregard for the rules of trade or the industries affected by it. This, by the way, is why President Obama put together a groundbreaking trade agreement with the rest of Asia, in hopes of exerting genuine leverage on China economically — a pact Trump immediately scrapped, earning him rare cheers from anti-trade Democrats.

What I’m saying is that old-fashioned tariffs aren’t going to make our anxiety over the modern economy magically disappear. And for a country badly divided between dueling realities, they could easily make it worse.

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