U.S. government accused of setting sexist tariffs

John Burcham/Nat. Geographic Ever wondered why men pay more for bathing suits than women, why women pay more for hiking boots than men, or why woven wool shirts are cheaper for women? The answer, it seems, is the United States Congress, which assigns differing tariff rates for men and women’s apparel. According to Michael Barbaro ...

John Burcham/Nat. Geographic

John Burcham/Nat. Geographic

Ever wondered why men pay more for bathing suits than women, why women pay more for hiking boots than men, or why woven wool shirts are cheaper for women? The answer, it seems, is the United States Congress, which assigns differing tariff rates for men and women’s apparel. According to Michael Barbaro in the International Herald Tribune, there is no apparent pattern to the tariff rates, which sometimes favor men and at other times favor women, with as much as a one hundred percent difference in tariff rates. He also notes that “the fees tacked onto clothing, shoes and swimwear as they enter the country’s ports may be the last legal form of sex discrimination in the United States, approved year after year by lawmakers and passed on to consumers.” But maybe not for long.

A number of major apparel companies, including Steve Madden, Asics and Columbia Sportswear, are challenging this sex discrimination in tariffs through lawsuits against the U.S. federal government. If they win, they could earn as much as $1 billion worth of tariffs, and higher future profits as tariffs are scaled down for consistency. Of course, they run the risk of increasing the prices for consumers if the government ultimately decides to raise the tariffs to equalize the rates rather than lower them.

What’s most interesting—or amusing—about this case is the utter lack of rationale for the differing rates. Some believe that it comes down to old-fashioned sex discrimination (but that doesn’t explain why men/women lose sometimes and win at other times), or that it’s a different form of protectionism. But the companies’ lawyers, after years of scrutinizing tariff lists, international trade court records and congressional testimony, have found no explanation for the tariff discrepancies. As Daniel Altman writes in his IHT blog:

What they really show, at bottom, is how arbitrary the tariff system is in the United States. In the midst of all the talk about global, regional and bilateral trade agreements, has anyone thought to check if the present regime is even rational?”

Prerna Mankad is a researcher at Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.