Forget ‘Buy American’? U.S. Retailers Push an ‘Imports Work’ Campaign

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Wanna support American workers? Buy imports. So says a new report, which claims that a cheap, robust imports marketplace not only helps American workers and families, but local farmers, manufacturers, and small businesses as well.

You may not have noticed, but last week was promoted as something called “Imports Work Week.” The celebrate the importance of imports in the U.S., a group of business associations led by the National Retail Federation (NRF) has released a study showing the many ways that imports benefit American consumers and businesses alike.

Cheaper prices are the most obvious benefit. “In the past decade, the price of television sets sold in the United States has dropped 87 percent. Computers have gone down 75 percent, toys 43 percent and dishes and flatware by a third,” the NRF’s Jon Gold explains in a blog post. “Why? The answer is easy – imports.”

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But the benefits don’t stop there, according to the study, which runs down how imports also help farmers, mom-and-pop businesses, working-class Americans, and even U.S. manufacturers. Here are a few of the groups that should love what imports do for them, per the report:

Imports improve American families’ standard of living. They help families make ends meet by ensuring a wide selection of budget-friendly goods, like electronics we use to communicate and many clothes and shoes we wear, and improve the year-round supply of such staples as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Imports support more than 16 million American jobs. A large number of these import-related jobs are union jobs, held by minorities and women, and are located across the United States.

More than half the firms involved in direct importing are small businesses, employing fewer than 50 workers.

American manufacturers and farmers rely on imports including raw materials and intermediate goods to lower their production costs and stay competitive in domestic and international markets. Factories and farms purchase more than 60 percent of U.S. imports.

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The report argues that because imports are so beneficial to so many groups in America, policymakers should avoid legislation that involves trade tariffs and any practices that “limit the benefits of imports to the U.S. economy.”

What about the widespread movement to support local businesses and “Buy American”? What about the idea that cheap imports kill American jobs?

“It’s just nonsense,” says Laura Baughman, an economist, president of the consulting firm Trade Partnership Worldwide, and one of the study’s authors. She calls the “Made in the USA” label “outdated” and “completely misleading,” and says that “most people are wrong” in their perceptions about the impact of imports. “That’s the whole reason we did the study.”

Goods marked “Made in the USA” are likely produced with at least some raw materials imported from overseas, Baughman explains. On the flip side, products that we think of as imports are often made with components that originate in the U.S.—such as American cotton in “Made in China” socks. “More than ever before, there really are no pure ‘Made in the USA’ products,” says Baughman. “There is no more ‘Made in China.’”

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What’s more, as for those socks imported from China, Baughman says that such products help—rather than hinder—U.S. employment: “It’s Americans that unload the socks at the port. It’s Americans that are involved in the marketing and selling of those socks.”

The report states that American consumers should, in fact, feel good about buying apparel and other goods imported from overseas:

Most consumers believe that it is next to impossible to find clothing any more that says “Made in
America.” They may be right that finding such a label is hard, but that doesn’t mean the apparel they see in stores doesn’t have a lot of America in it. Even though the product says “Made in China,” for example, because that is where it was assembled, in fact most of the value of the apparel is American.

What do diehard “Buy American” supporters make of this argument?

Mark Bloome, the founder of TAP America, a non-profit that asks Americans to pledge to buy American products and services, as well as to exercise regularly and practice “one act of tolerance each week,” describes the study as little more than a “snow job.”

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“The NRF is doing a snow job to import more items and improve their profits,” Bloome says in a statement released to TIME. “When Americans buy goods made in China, they are supporting the Chinese government and its military build-up, including potential cyber-warfare development which is stealing billions of dollars from USA companies right now. There is an old expression in retail: buy now pay later. When we buy Chinese products now, we pay for their development that may cost us more in the long run. The few dollars in savings now are minimal compared to what we will pay later in the costs our government has to incur to stop China’s manufacturing war machine.”

Baughman responds to such criticism by saying that the impulse to “Buy American” is outdated in the modern-day global marketplace. “It’s time to stop thinking about the way it was in the 1950s, and start thinking about the way things are now,” she says.

9 comments
ordcitizen01
ordcitizen01

There are a couple of flaws in Baughman's argument.  If most things sold in the US are made in the USA, the demand for international shipping might go down but the demand for domestic shipping will go up because you still need to move things around in the United States.  Another thing she got wrong was that the retail people would still have the same jobs if the products are made in the USA, the only difference is that the merchandise now say "Made in USA" on them.  Of course all of this is to be expected since she works for an organization called Trade Partnership Worldwide, which obviously wants Americans to buy foreign imports.  The US trade deficit with the rest of the world was 0.54 trillion in 2012, as Americans wee need to erase it, not add to it.  Buy American.

tom.litton
tom.litton

I think they are both right.  The "made in american" is simplistic and more or less outdated, thanks to the interconnected nature of today's economies and world.  

"Buying Imports" while helping the import industries, isn't exactly a path to prosperity.

The solution?

Free trade.  In an ideal world, this would be free and fair, but honestly, if they are able to strike an agreement that puts the US at an advantage, then i'm not going to work really hard against that.  Certainly they should only strike agreements that are to the advantage of the US, (or at the very least fair).

Increasing our competitive advantage.  How?  You will have to ask someone that is far smarter than i am.  But some ideas:  Encouraging engineering degrees, better retraining and vocational education, better infrastructure, subsidies to new industries (space, green tech, etc), more research to high tech manufacturing.

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

The notion that buying imports ignores many of the hidden costs such as the spewing of fumes into the air from the fuels used to push those heavy cargo ships across thousands of miles to bring them here.  These gases stay in the atmosphere for years and are carried around the world in the air currents.    Our health and the future of our planet suffers and no one is talking about this "side effect" from the globalization push. Don't expect Walmart and friends to tell that side of it.

It's been estimated that 30% of the carbon emissions in the world come from these ships.!  So it is important to just buy USA made products.

rightdemocrat
rightdemocrat

Domestic manufacturing creates far more jobs in this country than imports. Of course, you can buy a lot of cheap junk from China  at the big box stores but  job-destroying free trade policies lead to a shrinking middle class. I would much rather pay more and purchase quality American made products. 

Travon
Travon

If I am a businessman I would rather get workers from other countries since the pay would be less. I've read Vivek Sood’s book The 5-Star Business Networks wherein he mentioned that innovation is important for business and so is the different strategies the company will present. I think the strategy of some is to outsource, some is to endorse imports. If I would choose quality clothes I would go for the clothes Bangladesh is making than China. 

ClothingmadeInusablog
ClothingmadeInusablog

Where have I seen this argument before, oh yes, it was in 1981, a lot of us believed it at that time. But, now, we have seen what devastation of what outsourcing has caused. To name a few, a loss of over 10 million manufacturing jobs, a trade deficit with China above $239 billion a year, chronically high unemployment, a loss at a chance of an economic boom (that is right we are in the midst of one of the largest ever booms with cell phones, tablets, e-readers and we, the USA, have not had the benefit of it because we do not make any of those devices) and a dependence on imports. Tell me that story again. I like a good laugh. Buy American.

mary.waterton
mary.waterton

Brought to you by the same people who sponsored the study "proving" that smoking crack raises your IQ.

zornwil
zornwil

Interestingly, to your point, nothing in this article speaks to the long-term well-being of the United States as a nation-state, only economic benefits to (some) people.  Of course, businesses don't care about nation-states; they care about themselves, which is fair and even '"right," (at least from the perspective of how both capitalism and the compeition of interests in a democracy work), but not ought be conflated with that which is good for the nation-state. 

Still, I am against protectionism.  The issue, though, is assuring that other nations (and the US) "play fair," which is where the devil in the detail is, exactly. 

zornwil
zornwil

Can you please cite?