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.”

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.

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.’”

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.”

“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.

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