While I was skimming through my local newspaper this morning, I found an article on the op-ed page by columnist Froma Harrop. Her question is, are we willing to pay more for clothes that are made in the United States? While the liberal Ms. Harrop is not known for her civility towards the conservatives with whom she disagrees, her column hits the mark on a topic I have long wondered about myself.
Liberals and conservatives alike champion American jobs and American manufacturing. There is nothing more patriotic than the politician who wants to put Americans to work by “bringing manufacturing jobs back home.” I don’t know of a single person in my circle of friends who is pushing to trade solidly manufactured American products for cheap overseas imports. But as Ms. Harrop asks, are we willing to pay more for American made goods? She thinks not, and she is probably right.
Blame it on greedy American companies who ship their operations overseas to low-wage sweatshops so American companies can increase their profits, say liberals. But there is more to the story. Consider the cost of labor. Politicians claim to want to bring these jobs back, but it is often their own doing through the passage of wage and benefit mandates, environmental regulations, OSHA regulations, and now Obamacare regulations, that raise the cost of making anything in America. It is not other countries that are necessarily causing the American manufacturing downfall. They want to provide jobs for their people as well, and can we blame them? In reality, America shoots itself in the foot by saying one thing and doing another. On the one hand, they want manufacturing jobs, they say, but not the dirty or unglamorous ones, not the ones for low-skilled or non-union workers, not the ones that involve sitting behind a sewing machine all day. On the other hand, they don’t want cheap imports coming across the border either, but Americans can’t have it both ways. There is somewhat of an elite mentality about what should be manufactured in America, and the government too often gets to call the shots at the demands of unions and other special interest groups.
On the other hand, conservatives miss the point as well. They also want American made clothes and other products, but balk at the notion of paying $150 for a pair of American made shoes or $800 for a coat made in New York City’s garment district. As one of my relatives often puts it, “Chinese made shoes don’t last, but I’m not about to pay twice as much for American made shoes.” This is not the 1950’s. Clothing purchases as a share of income has fallen dramatically since then due to imports and more mechanized production, but if households have saved so much money in the clothing budget, why shouldn’t they invest in a pair of American made shoes every once in awhile? Short of the government becoming laissez faire, only demand more American goods will produce more of them.