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How Hard Are Tariffs Hitting The Economy? It Depends On Who You Ask

U.S. farmers have suffered a one-two punch of bad weather, which makes it hard to grow crops, and tariffs, which make it hard to sell what they grow.
Michael Conroy
U.S. farmers have suffered a one-two punch of bad weather, which makes it hard to grow crops, and tariffs, which make it hard to sell what they grow.

Updated at 9:58 a.m. ET

The tariff war has caused a lot of anxiety for business owners and farmers. But how much has it hurt the overall economy?

The stock market got off to a rocky start this week when President Trump launched a new round of tariff threats. But administration loyalists insist concern about the trade war is overblown.

In an interview with NPR's Noel King, Stephen Vaughn, former general counsel for the president's trade representative, argued that Trump's tariff battles have not sidetracked a strong U.S. economy.

"To me, you have to look at it from the macroeconomic picture," Vaughn said. "Record low unemployment, very — almost no inflation, strong markets, and generally strong trade numbers. So I think the policies are working very well and I think that's why the president is continuing to go down that path."

At 3.5%, unemployment is at a near-record low. Hiring surged in November with 266,000 jobs added, and job gains for the two previous months were stronger than initially reported.

Still, economic growth has decelerated. GDP growth in the third quarter barely topped 2%, and it's expected to slow further in last three months of the year.

Factories in Michigan lost more than 4,000 jobs in the first nine months of the year. (This excludes October, when jobs were temporarily lost to the UAW strike at General Motors.) Wisconsin factories lost more than 7,000 jobs. And Pennsylvania suffered the nation's biggest factory job losses with 7,400.

ACF Industries announced in November that it was cutting 148 jobs at its train car factory in Milton, Pa.

"They want everybody out by the end of the year," employee James Dolan told WNEP-TV in Scranton. "I feel sorry for the guys in their 50s where they have to find something else."

Factories — many of which depend on global supply chains and healthy export markets — are particularly vulnerable to the trade war. The much larger services sector — including restaurants and hospitals, which cater to local customers — is more insulated. Services accounted for the bulk of the new jobs in November, with 206,000 added.

The other big weak spot is farming, which has suffered a one-two punch of bad weather, which makes it hard to grow crops, and tariffs, which make it hard to sell what you do grow. In the 12 months ending in September, farm bankruptcies jumped 24%, to their highest level since 2011.

"There's a general anxiety," said Greg Pittman, an attorney in La Crosse, Wis.

Wisconsin led the nation in farm bankruptcies in the past year. And Pittman says that's just the tip of the iceberg since farmers usually resort to bankruptcy only after exhausting all other remedies.

"A lot of times we're seeing foreclosures, lawsuits," Pittman said. "Those are not fun times for anybody, especially farmers when they've got a lot on the line."

To be sure, farmers and factory workers are a small slice of the American workforce. Whether you see their troubles as a warning sign for the larger economy may depend on your political perspective.

The University of Michigan surveys consumers about the economy every month. Richard Curtin, who runs the survey, says the gap between attitudes of Republicans and Democrats has never been wider.

"Democrats, as soon as Trump was elected, expected a recession. And they still expect a recession," Curtin said. "Republicans expected robust growth. And they still expect robust growth."

Almost three years into the Trump presidency, Americans still view economic reality through very different partisan lenses.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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