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For These Workers, Tariffs Are More Than An Abstract Concept


President Trump has been imposing tariffs on imports from China, Mexico and the European Union over the last few months. Tariffs are an abstract concept to many people. But Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from Planet Money's economic podcast The Indicator wanted to know who oversees the new tariffs and where they go. So they went out and found some of them.


STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Cardiff, you remember this "Schoolhouse Rock!" video about how a bill becomes a law.


JACK SHELDON: (As Bill, singing) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only a bill, and I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: And this got us thinking about tariffs.

VANEK SMITH: Of course.

GARCIA: Yeah. Where do tariffs hang out?

VANEK SMITH: When an administration puts new tariffs in place, new import taxes, they end up here.


VANEK SMITH: That is the sound of 3,728 pages of tariff law dropping onto a conference room table at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection building in Newark, N.J.

GARCIA: Dropping from only, like, 2 inches off the ground, by the way.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) That's true.


VANEK SMITH: It's hard to lift.

GARCIA: Yeah. Specifically, those pages were in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States of America. It's almost a foot thick.

VANEK SMITH: Linda Birck and Mitchel Landau work for Customs and Border Protection. It is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

GARCIA: We asked Mitch to show us what a tariff looks like, or, actually, all the tariffs in one place.

MITCHEL LANDAU: It's a very, very big, thick book. And in it, there are numbers. Those numbers indicate a description of every article that can come in to the United States of America.

GARCIA: They deal with apparel, footwear and textiles for the entire country, and this category could be affected by President Trump's threatened new set of tariffs against China. Right after President Trump's announcement, the phone started ringing from companies that import stuff from China who were calling with questions.

LANDAU: For example, we just kind of randomly opened it up. We're in chapter 62, subheading is 6203.11. So that's only going to encompass suits of wool or fine animal hair containing 30 percent or more by weight of silk or silk waste. And then you could see that it has to have a average diameter of 18.5 microns or less.

VANEK SMITH: OK. So here's how this works. Mitch and Linda and their team are keeping track of all of these thousands of cargo containers that are coming into the U.S. every day.

GARCIA: Let's take a hypothetical example where there's, like, this big suit chain in Kansas called Kansas Suits, Inc. And the suits that it is importing seem kind suspiciously close to that 18 1/2 micron count, right? So Customs and Border Protection decides to inspect that shipment.

LANDAU: So we'll send that to the lab, and they will analyze it, and they'll tell us, well, what's the breakdown of the fiber content?

GARCIA: Wait a minute. You blew my mind (laughter). There is the equivalent of a CSI lab but for trade right here in this building.

VANEK SMITH: They wouldn't let us see it.

GARCIA: Sadly.

VANEK SMITH: I'm sorry, Cardiff, but, you know, it was there. Somewhere in that big, beige building, there is a CSI lab where they're testing suit fibers and other things for the Department of Homeland Security.

GARCIA: Most companies probably won't go through the lab. They'll just have to find out if their imports fall under one of the new tariffs' categories, and then they'll just pay the new taxes.

VANEK SMITH: The new tariffs could bring more money into the U.S., and they will, of course, make the tariff book even longer and denser than it already was.

GARCIA: Yeah. It's not exactly a page-turner as is.

VANEK SMITH: But there's some cool stuff in there.

LANDAU: There is even a heading for moon rock, OK?


LANDAU: Even NASA has to make - everyone has to declare to Customs upon coming into the United States.

VANEK SMITH: Like, if they import something from the moon.


VANEK SMITH: What's the tariff on a moon rock?

LANDAU: It was free.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

LINDA BIRCK: Yet, it still has to be declared and entered and released.

VANEK SMITH: They're very serious about their tariffs.

GARCIA: They really are. Like, even moon tariffs - moon rock tariffs.

VANEK SMITH: There's no - you don't laugh at the tariffs.

GARCIA: You don't mess around with that.

VANEK SMITH: Even if they're zero.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.