This will be a holiday week for many of us, as the schools are closed for Midwinter Break, often referred to as February Break. I graduated from high school in 1964 (scary even to me), when we never had this break. We just had a Spring Break, usually in April. From what I could find, it started in the 1970’s, as an energy-saving measure when there was an energy crisis. Later, it became permanent as part of cost-cutting efforts in connection with teacher union contract negotiations, combining some other potential days off into a single week off for the teachers. The downside may be the economic and child care challenges for many families.
My wife, Judith, and I will be going away for the week, on a vacation that is already paid for. Sorry, but I can’t resist reminding everyone that a paid or saved-for vacation is much more relaxing than one where you have to wonder how you are going to pay that credit card bill when you return. In any event, if you have some time off, I hope that you can make it interesting, enjoyable and relaxing.
There has been a lot of talk about new charges on commercial goods coming into the United States. Whether they are termed tariffs, boarder taxes, or some other clever marketing term, it will mean that some goods will no doubt be more expensive for the end user — us. It may also mean that if end user (retail) prices do increase, and Americans end up buying less, that jobs could be lost, as those selling the goods need to cut costs.
None of that sounds particularly good to anyone I have spoken with about this issue over the last few months, especially since there is really no clear evidence that these tariffs would in fact create significantly more American jobs. The discussions of these added tariffs have been primarily in connection with China, where we have a $347 billion annual trade deficit, and Mexico, where we have an annual $63 billion trade deficit. The prices of a lot of electronics, clothes and some automobiles immediately come to mind, but then there are everyday fresh fruits and vegetables, and even beer prices, that would be affected.
I have not really asked the question, but I have wondered what Americans are thinking about the impact of these possible border taxes and increases in the cost of imported goods on their own household budgets and personal finances — other than that, generally, no one wants to pay more for things than they used to. It’s that old political axiom: Once you have given something to someone, it is hard to take it away.
So when people hear these reports, do they say things to themselves like "I guess I will have to get along with less." "Maybe I will finally have to start being a better shopper, and find ways to get some things for less, even though it may be less convenient for me." Perhaps there are even some people who are actually resigning themselves to going deeper into debt. I would hope that it is the first two, rather than the latter.
Over the years, I have often wondered whether Americans really have become addicted to cheaper or less expensive goods, even at the expense of American jobs, including Americans whose jobs may be at risk as a result, or whether that is just a myth or an urban legend.
Here are some answers from an April 2016 Associated Press poll. Nearly three in four said they would like to buy goods manufactured in the United States, but those items are often too costly or difficult to find. Nine percent of those polled said they only buy American. The following result really doesn’t surprise me, and, as a frugal, "get the best value for your dollar" shopper, somewhat encourages me, except for the potential effect on jobs and other economic metrics: 67 percent of those polled would spend $50 for a pair of pants made in another country, of the same fabric and style, than an $85 pair made in the United States, and this includes higher-income households.
We don’t know if any of these border taxes will be implemented, or just how many of our jobs have been lost to automation, as opposed to globalization, the desire for more corporate profits, bad trade deals, or the desire for less expensive goods, but time will tell. In the meantime, think about what you will do to adjust your budget if prices do rise.
Because so many people ask me, I provide some of my developing thoughts about “free college” in the next issue.
John Ninfo is a retired bankruptcy judge and the founder of the National CARE Financial Literacy Program.