STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're also following some other news and features. Our Planet Money team has been making a T-shirt and all this week, we've been following its journey around the world, including to Colombia, where they were made. This is an exploration that tells you a lot about the global economy. And today, Jacob Goldstein meets those shirts as they arrive in Miami - and encounters a 3,000-page book that shapes economies around the world.
JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: I'm walking around the port of Miami with Officer Lisa Sacco. She's with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. We are, literally, waiting for our ship to come in.
LISA SACCO: There's our ship.
GOLDSTEIN: The ship is called the Hansa Kirkenes. It left Cartagena, Colombia, about a week ago, carrying all 6,078 of Planet Money women's T-shirts. A giant crane lifts the container carrying all those shirts off the ship, and drops it at my feet. Boom.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
GOLDSTEIN: They made it. The Planet Money women's T-shirts are here.
The T-shirts are here, and yet they're not quite here yet. If you've ever waited at an airport to clear Customs, that's where our T-shirts are now, waiting for permission to enter the country. I ask Office Sacco: What could Customs be worried about, with a container coming from Colombia to Miami? Drugs? Guns?
SACCO: The only thing I could think of is maybe a trade violation. Trade is a huge issue. I mean, that's what we do, is we protect our trade.
GOLDSTEIN: Protecting U.S. trade means following an incredibly elaborate set of rules that are part of U.S. law. And they're all spelled out in a giant book more than 3,000 pages long.
MICHAEL CONE: It is the book of everything - at least for the importer.
GOLDSTEIN: This is Michael Cone, a customs and international trade attorney in New York. The book is called the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States. And Cone says it lists the tax importers have to pay on approximately every single thing in the universe - including, of course, T-shirts.
CONE: And chapter 6109 covers, generally, T-shirts, singlets, tank tops and similar garments knitted or crocheted.
GOLDSTEIN: That's us.
CONE: That's us.
GOLDSTEIN: That's the Planet Money T-shirt - 6109.
CONE: That's where we're going to be.
GOLDSTEIN: Now, the average tax rate on stuff coming into this country is about 2 percent. In the book of everything, Cone points to the rate we're going to have to pay for the Planet Money T-shirt.
CONE: The tariff is 16.5 percent.
GOLDSTEIN: So, 16-and-a-half percent is a lot.
CONE: It's a lot.
GOLDSTEIN: The Planet Money men's T-shirt was made in Bangladesh, and we're going to pay the full 16-and-a-half percent on the men's shirts. But the women's shirts, the ones that just arrived in Miami, came from Colombia, and the book of everything says we get a special deal on those.
CONE: It says free. Now, when you see free...
GOLDSTEIN: Free? I like free.
CONE: We all like free, and if you jump through the right hoops and you follow the direction that Uncle Sam has provided, you can come in duty-free.
GOLDSTEIN: So, why are we paying a 16-and-a-half percent tax on our shirts coming from Bangladesh, and zero on the shirts coming from Colombia? Start with this: the United States has had a tax on textile imports since 1789, the year the Constitution took effect. Douglas Irwin, an economist at Dartmouth, says it really got going after the War of 1812.
DOUGLAS IRWIN: Imports began flooding into the United States, hurting all of these small new producers of textiles. And they clamored and went to Washington and said our industry's going to be wiped out. We're going to throw out of work thousands of people. We need protection to save our mills.
GOLDSTEIN: So, Congress raised the tariff, which made textile imports more expensive, and that protected U.S. mills. We've had a tariff on textiles ever since. But recently, another side of the debate has gotten louder, more powerful. The companies that import clothes into the U.S. and the retail stores that sell those clothes, they say this tariff gets passed on to consumers. It makes clothes more expensive for everybody in this country.
Economists agree with this, and they say tariffs distort the economy, make it less efficient. So that tariff on clothes and fabric that's been in place for hundreds of years is going away one country at a time. In the past few decades, Mexico, Honduras, Israel, they've all signed free trade deals with the U.S. And a few years ago, the U.S. made a free trade deal with Colombia. Luis Restrepo is the CEO of the Colombia company that made our T-shirts. He says that if there were a tariff on Colombia shirts, his company couldn't export to the U.S. at all.
LUIS RESTREPO: No. To export into the United States, no, will make our garments very expensive.
GOLDSTEIN: In other words, without this free trade deal, the Planet Money women's T-shirts that are arriving in Miami today would not have been made at Colombia at all. They would have been made somewhere else, somewhere cheaper. This is how a tiny tweak in U.S. tariff rules in the book of everything can create or destroy whole industries in other countries. Back at the port, I head over to the shipping company office to find out one last thing: Have our shirts been released by Customs, or is Customs going to hold us up to make sure we followed all those trade rules?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What's the container number?
To me, this is a big moment. It's the first time I've ever cleared 6,078 T-shirts through Customs. For the woman helping me, it's the most routine thing in the world.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Everything's fully released.
GOLDSTEIN: So, basically, we're good to go.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.
GOLDSTEIN: Good to go, duty-free and bound, eventually, for you. Jacob Goldstein, NPR News.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.