ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
As we report elsewhere in today's program, President Obama is ordering a review of federal regulations. He'd like to root out rules that are outmoded and hinder the economy. Well, there's perhaps no set of regulations that seems more arbitrary to people in business than the U.S. tariff system.
A: The Customs and Border Protection office at the Los Angeles-Long Beach seaport.
ALEX BLUMBERG: There is no logic to tariffs, no general rule of thumb to calculate how much duty you'll need to pay to bring an item into the United States. The only way to find out is by consulting this very big, foot-wide book that makes a satisfying thump when you drop it on a table.
(SOUNDBITE OF A THUMP)
ELVA MUNETON: This is the Harmonized Tariff Schedule, and in here you will find every commodity that you could possibly think of with a duty rate.
BLUMBERG: Wood tar, rodenticides...
MUNETON: As you could see, you have tariff numbers and then you have a description of what the merchandise is. And then you have a duty rate, which would tell you, if you are bringing these insecticides, you would be paying, let's say, 2.8 percent.
BLUMBERG: Oh, and the same shoe will get assessed a different duty depending on whether it's for a woman or a man.
MUNETON: Women's is twelve and a half and men get eight and a half percent. So again......
BLUMBERG: Wait. Women get 12 and a half and men got eight and a half.
MUNETON: Mm-hmm. Yes, they do.
BLUMBERG: But also, these seemingly arbitrary distinctions create a huge incentive for importers to try and get around the rules. Which means the men and women who work at our nation's ports, must constantly verify that importers are bringing in what they say they're bringing in. And that verification, it can get ugly.
MARIAN FEDOROV: One of the tools that we like to use is an autopsy saw.
BLUMBERG: This is Marion Fedorov, a scientist at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection testing lab. One of her main jobs: Sawing apart gym shoes and other items of footwear. For example, if a shoe is more than 50 percent leather, it will get a lower duty rate. How do you verify what percentage of the shoe is leather? You need to cut it open and measure all the component parts - which brings us to the autopsy saw.
FEDOROV: It does a really nice job of cutting through the leather textile and rubber-plastic components that we're trying to separate.
BLUMBERG: So you're about to cut this shoe.
FEDEROV: Here you go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAW)
BLUMBERG: Michael Cone is a trade lawyer.
MICHAEL CONE: You know, there are almost no producers of apparel left in the United States. There's hardly any footwear left. So these are real truly vestiges of an older time when, in fact, we had those jobs. You know, so why are they still here?
BLUMBERG: In the old...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONEA: Revenue generation and also inertia, for sure. Inertia is a big part of it.
BLUMBERG: I'm Alex Blumberg, NPR News.
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