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How avocados shape Americans' views on trade policy

A man shops for avocados at a Whole

A man shops for avocados at a Whole Foods Market on Aug. 28, 2017, in New York. Photo Credit: AP/Mark Lennihan

It's become a running joke: A surprising number of stories about President Donald Trump's tariffs focus on avocados and the potential impact of the tariffs on millennials, who rely on this staple. People who regularly cook with avocados, smash them on their bagels or make guacamole pay attention to the fruit. They plan for its peak ripeness and pay close attention to its cost, which makes them alert to the effects of tariffs.

But this reveals a truism: when it comes to dense policy matters that are hard to understand, our connection to familiar, intimate things matter. During the American Revolution, for example, consumer action around tea and homespun cloth helped bring a revolutionary worldview home. Put simply, everyday objects can shape how Americans understand economic and political life. While Americans may not grasp the complex nature of distant market forces when it comes to tariffs, they may have stronger feelings about the cost of everyday things - like avocados.

Consider, for instance, the tariff debates of the early 1890s, when discussion about the consumer costs of materials like tin, rather than the merits and drawbacks of international markets and national interest, reframed American economic policy.

In his 1892 presidential campaign, Grover Cleveland, seeking to regain the White House, used tin cards to protest the McKinley tariff of 1890, which dramatically increased duties on many imports. Roughly the size of a playing card, the tin cards featured images of Cleveland and his running mate, Adlai Stevenson, on one side. On the reverse were two object lessons offering competing stories about the tin on which they were printed.

These lessons did not dig into a discussion of the swelling national surplus, the unfairness of protectionism or the uneven interests of American manufacturers. Rather, Cleveland's cards told the story of two seemingly identical pieces of tin: one on an "imported tin plate" and one on an " 'American' tin plate."

The goal of these lessons was to inform voters that the two were identical from a material standpoint, but the imported plate cost consumers an added duty of 73 and 1/3 percent, in order to protect the market for the American tin plate. But this hurt everyday Americans, the first card explained to readers. The cans and boxes that held farmers' tomatoes, peaches and peas and that preserved the lobsters, oysters and salmon caught by industrious fisherman were made of tin. As such, the tariff on this simple imported material hurt the average Americans, who would eventually pay the 73 1/3 percent hike in price.

The second card emphasized the production of tin. In its focus on the so-called "American tin plate," the story of its production highlighted the many foreign steps in that process, as it walked the reader through the story of this simple "American" commodity's global manufacture. First, the great sheets of steel, the substructure for the tin, were made in Great Britain and imported to the United States, tinned with tin from Australia, using a "Tinning-pot," the machine used to cover the steel sheets with tin, from Great Britain. The oil used to grease this machine came from Africa.

The unmistakable lesson: the tariff did not necessarily protect American consumers or workers. Goods defined as foreign were not necessarily bad for Americans or their businesses, and the articles supposedly produced domestically, thereby justifying tariff protection, weren't necessarily all American-made.

Cleveland's two sheets of tin were not the only "object lessons" employed to point out the arbitrary nature of this protectionist economic approach. The New York Times reported object lessons on the price increase on black alpaca used for women's dresses and on wool suiting for working men's best suits as well as highly taxed American-made carpets woven from English wool, among other items. These tariffs affected Americans' pocketbooks.

Understanding how damaging such stories about everyday goods like alpaca or tin could be, a pro-tariff lawmaker even tried - unsuccessfully - to counter this these tales by bringing a 50-pound block of California-made tin to the floor of the House as a "Tariff Object Lesson."

Writers drew upon everyday objects to make their point about how the division between foreign and domestic goods was not as easily or as thickly drawn as the McKinley Tariff presumed. These lessons relied on a nuanced understanding of the relationship between familiar commodities and trade networks, and were made concrete by looking at everyday things.

This campaign worked. McKinley had lost his House seat in the 1890 midterm elections, Cleveland, the fierce free-trader, recaptured the presidency from the pro-tariff Benjamin Harrison in 1892. In 1894, Congress repealed the McKinley tariff. Historians believe the Tariff of 1890 likely helped the nascent U.S. tin industry, but at great consumer cost.

Ironically tinned-sheet iron is still part of the current tariff debate. Trump even looks back at the tariffs of that period as inspiration for his own. And, it is just as complicated today as it was then. Does a tin can cost a few cents more? Can we think of an object as being domestic or foreign or both? What of cans created in the United States but made from foreign-made tin, not subject to tariffs? Does the cost of a tin can matter? To whom? These questions could still invite deeper consideration and curiosity beyond the tariff question, but they don't seem to.

Tin is not central to American lives in a way that the average consumer notices like it was in the 19th century. While Cleveland's tin lesson helped 19th-century Americans assess and challenge the intricacies of commodity relationships, they are unlikely to do so today.

Avocados, however, are a different story. They are a good that many Americans purchase regularly, and whose cost, therefore, they know intimately. While consumers can ignore abstract line charts about trade wars, they can't ignore the price in the supermarket of their favorite fruit. Telling the stories about tariffs through everyday objects allows consumers to understand how such dense policies might impact them, and just might change the political calculus.

Carter teaches material culture in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is author of "Object Lessons: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Learned to Make Sense of the Material World."

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