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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 56

New Coercion Laws Nearly Coincident With Increased Ad Valorem Rates Down to 1874.—Need of Simplification

page XXV

New Coercion Laws Nearly Coincident With Increased Ad Valorem Rates Down to 1874.—Need of Simplification.

It will be observed from the historical review which has been attempted of the tariff legislation of the country from the organization of the Government down to the present day, that increasing severity of legislation to prevent customs frauds has come down to us side by side with a raising of the rates of duty, and with an enlargement of the application of ad valorem rates. The true inference to be drawn from that fact cannot, I think, fail to appear.

There will be persons who do not, or will pretend they do not, understand a law which works to their disadvantage, no matter how clear it may be, but I think there are those who are really and honestly confused by the technical and artificial character of a part of our present customs legislation. I am continually impressed by the fact that so many apparently well-meaning persons, in letters to this Department, write as if they really believed that all invoices, whether of purchased or of consigned goods, must contain the actual cost, which is true of purchased goods, but is not true of consigned goods. A few manufacturers appear to believe that as a purchaser must invoice at actual cost, so must a manufacturer whose goods are sent here on consignment. There is much also in what is said and done by our consular officers abroad, which leads one to fear that too many of them do not understand, or even try to understand, the legal distinction between the two classes of invoices.

Our laws require a manufacturer to declare in his invoice the fair market value at the time when, and the place where the goods were manufactured. It is quite possible that the time of manufacture may antedate by many months, or even by years, the date of the starting of the merchandise on its way to this country. Up to 1851, as has been shown, our laws required the invoice to be of the day of purchase, or procurement, or manufacture; but since 1851 the appraisal is made as of the time of exportation to the United States.

It may well enough happen that goods, whose value is influenced by the fashion of the day, were manufactured in 1883 or 1884, but consigned in 1886, or when out of fashion in Europe. Under such circumstances, the manufacturer too often inserts in his invoice the value at the time of shipment, or even less than that value, instead of the value at the date of manufacture, although our law requires that the value shall be on the day when the manufacture of the merchandise was completed. The inconvenience, and perhaps the injustice, of our existing law, are seen in this: A manufacturer cannot on entry reduce the in- page XXVI voice value, although he may add to it to make market value and save a penalty: the Appraiser may return to the Collector a value less than the invoice value, but our Collector must, nevertheless, levy duty on not less than the entered value. One can readily see how useful to the Appraisers it would be to have before them a declaration by the manufacturer of the market value of merchandise on the day its manufacture was completed, but in order to make that information valuable the invoice should specify the date of the manufacture, which no invoice, as I am informed, ever does.

I respectfully suggest the inquiry whether the law, requiring a manufacturer sending merchandise hither on consignment to declare in his invoice the value at the time of manufacture, cannot safely be changed so as to require him to state the value at the time of shipment, in order that the valuation by the Appraisers and the valuation in the invoice may refer to the same period.

The belief is quite general that our law constrains the appraising officers to be controlled by the invoice, whereas the invoice is only insisted upon by the law as a piece of evidence to inform the judgment of the appraising officers, and enable them to come to a correct conclusion as to the value of the merchandise 011 the day which the law requires the appraising officers to regard. The opinion that the invoice value is conclusive, or should be conclusive, upon the appraising officers, may have been inspired, or confirmed, by the provision of the law which forbids the collector to levy duty on less than the invoice or entered value, as well as by a disregard of the other requirement of the law that the appraisers are, by all reasonable ways and means, to ascertain the market value in the foreign country at the date of exportation, any invoice, or affidavit to the contrary notwithstanding. In May, 1856, the appraisers at the port of New York returned to the Collector a value less than that declared in the entry, and the question was presented to this Department, whether or not the appraised value should be taken as the dutiable value. It happened in that case that the importer raised on entry the invoice value, for some reason or other, possibly to avoid an apprehended penalty. This Department, in a letter to the Collector of New York, of May 8th, 1856, made this observation:

"I cannot comprehend how it is appraisers can undertake to say that they will disbelieve the importer's own declaration of value, when he produced his invoice, and when he adds to his invoice value; and that he, the appraiser, knows better than the importer, and therefore disbelieves him, and finds the value less than he has declared it to be. Persistence in such a course by the appraisers would prove an obliquity of judgment that it is impossible to comprehend or provide against.

page XXVII

The duty cannot be assessed upon less than the increased declared value, no matter what may be the appraised value returned by the appraisers, and you should report all cases where the appraisers undertake thus to set aside the evidence of the importer's declaration of value."

As a result of that letter from this Department, the practice began, as I am informed, which has since continued, under which the appraising officers, unless satisfied that the entered value is too low, report to the Collector, on the invoice, "Value Correct." It is a natural inference that if the importer's declaration of value is to be so controlling in one condition of facts, it ought to be so controlling in another condition of facts wherein the appraising officers are in doubt whether the invoice valuation is sufficiently high. It may not be safe to modify the existing provision of the law that the Collector shall never take duty on less than the entered value; and yet, in the practical working of that law it may happen, under our ad valorem system, that one who buys in Paris a camel's-hair shawl, for example, and pays therefor five thousand francs, and enters it for that sum, as the purchaser would be required to do, may be compelled to pay duty on the equivalent in our money of five thousand francs, but that a dealer, buying on the same day, in Paris, and from the same seller another shawl precisely similar, but purchased for four thousand francs, entered and appraised at that sum as the real market value of the shawl, may only be compelled to pay duty thereon, or on a valuation one thousand francs less than the former valuation.

These obvious inequalities and hardships are, I think, inherent in any ad valorem system. The experience of the Government in 1817, sixty-nine years ago, when ad valorem rates were less by one-half, if not by two-thirds, than now, and the illuminating report of my predecessor, Mr. Crawford, whose correct judgment has been attested by the praise of Mr. Gallatin, warn us that even with a large scaling down of ad valorem rates by a horizontal reduction, or any other reduction, the inequalities and hardships of an ad valorem system, and the attempting or perpetrating of frauds on the revenue are not likely to come to an end. We are living in days when profits to be derived from the carrying on of business, whether it be in buying and selling, or manfacturing merchandise, or in the railway business, or in banking business, or in brokerage business, or in steamship business, come from the large volume of business done under conditions of very "thin" rates for transacting the business. Thus it happens that a comparatively small sum evaded, or saved, in the payment of duties to the Government, will be sufficient to make the difference between a profit, or a loss, in importation, and will be sufficient to give victory in the sharp contest between rival importers and dealers.