We Understand Tariffs

Ryil Adamson is the author of the book, “The Best-Looking One Always Wins,” which is way excellent.

The president and I, as twins, both understand who the winners and losers are with a higher tax on imported goods. I understand it because I wrote a book and had to learn it to explain it. The president understands because he has a financial stake in the matter.

A high Tariff favors the American ownership class at the expense of the American working class. The first United States presidential election that highlighted this was the Cleveland-Harrison election of 1888.

President Cleveland was responsible for bringing the Tariff front and center. It had been an issue since the Civil War, but most politicians had treated it like they had treated slavery: leave it for the next guy. Cleveland broke with tradition and made the Tariff the thrust of his speech to Congress before the election, telling his advisors, “What’s the use of being elected, or re-elected, unless you stand for something?”

Republican business owners were in favor of a higher tariff, because if the taxes on goods from other countries were high, consumers would buy more local stuff. The problem with that was that it drove up prices, making it more difficult for working Americans to buy things. Cleveland felt that since the current treasury had a $93 million surplus—thanks to the high Tariff—it was time to lower the tax and give something back to the people

Cleveland was about to find out that standing for something was a risky idea. The Republicans were better organized and had more money. After Cleveland’s nomination, the other side got called to arms. Businessman John Wanamaker wired all of the other rich businessmen: “We need money and we need it quick.” For these businesses, campaign donations were a profit proposition: their incomes would’ve dropped by more with a low tariff than the by the amount of money they spent on Harrison’s campaign.

This campaign, as a result, is known as the first big “campaign finance” election. The next time you get an email asking you to donate, you can blame John Wanamaker. And if it’s too hard to remember him, just blame Benjamin Harrison. Raising gobs of money is an effective strategy, by the way. As Wanamaker said later: “We raised the money so quickly that the Democrats never knew anything about it…before they knew it, we had them beaten.”

1888 wannamaker

Cleveland won the national popular vote but Harrison won the Electoral College and that’s what matters. It was a crazy time. It was the fourth election in a row with a margin of victory under 1%, and every one of them was under some level of dispute. It started with the clusterf— in 1876, which must have been very traumatic. In all of the next three elections, the losers thought they had been robbed, but still chose not to contest the results.

One way or the other, Harrison got elected. He was kind of bummed out when it came time to be president, though. “I could not name my own cabinet,” he complained. “They had sold out every place to pay for election expenses.” Well, when you make a deal with Big Money, Big Money will get theirs. In 1888, they got their high tariff and their government jobs. In 2018, they got…well, their high tariff and their government jobs.

Ryil Adamson is the author of the book, “The Best-Looking One Always Wins,” which is way excellent.


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