Sam Burnham, Curator
There is a lot of talk about trade and tariffs and trade deficits and trade partners and all sorts of other details pertaining to the importing and exporting of goods.I'm not an economist. I don't have an economist of staff. I don't even really know any economists off the top of my head that I could call to advise me on this article. But I know just enough to say the few things that I meed to say here.
In the 1840s and 50s, there were scuffles about tariffs and trade. The Southern economy was based in agriculture. Any manufactures good either came from the North or Europe. The cotton crop was only profitable because cotton bales could be put on ships and sent to Liverpool, or less often places in the North like Lowell, Massachusetts to be processed. British companies could often offer better prices for cotton and, in turn, the manufactured goods that Southerners needed or wanted. Tariffs put the North on equal footing with manufactured goods but also harmed the cotton prices. So while the argument could be made that the US as a whole benefited from the tariffs, the South was not benefiting at all.
We are bound to find ourselves in a similar situation. Our economy is still largely agricultural and still benefits largely from exports. The United States is the tops source for pork in China. That is before you factor in poultry, grains, fruits and vegetables. And yes, we are still exporting cotton. If our trade partners counter tariffs with some of their own, our prices will suffer.
While tariff might put US businesses on a level playing field price-wise, they do nothing to lower market prices on the whole. They merely raise the imported product price closer to the level of a domestic one. That being the case, concerned citizens can do the same thing without the tariffs by just purchasing products that are made in the US. Supply and demand will work out the rest.
Granted many of the products being imported and exported are resources or materials that will be used in domestic manufacturing - such as steel to be used in appliances, automobiles, construction, etc. But a little consumer research can guide a concerned customer to the most domestic products. This is simply the responsibility of a responsible and conscientious consumer looking out for the economic well being of our society.
Taking that to the next level would be to make the home location of a product a consideration when purchasing. Price will always be a consideration. But if you can begin your location priorities with your local area and then spread out from there, you'll be helping your economy as a responsible consumer. For instance, if I prioritize products from my hometown, then my part of Georgia, then Georgia as a whole, then the Georgia-Florida-Alabama-South Carolina region, spread out through the South before spreading out from there, I am using a method of free trade that will strengthen my town as well as our neighbors. I'm saving on shipping time, costs, pollution, middlemen, etc. I'm creating more jobs, most likely with more numerous small enterprises. It isn't applicable to every product you buy but it can be a start that could lead to an increase in available local products as the economy improves. I'm decentralizing the market and creating more options closer to home.
Free trade is not a bad thing on any level. What we do with free trade can be beneficial or destructive. The only healthy way to treat free trade is to realize that it isn't controlled by Washington or Beijing any more than it is by our personal checkbooks and acting accordingly. Free trade doesn't just happen at the port of entry. It happens at the cash register.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire