Imports Are Good for American Workers

by greg rushford

greg rushford is the editor and publisher of The Rushford Report, an online journal focused on trade politics.

Published April 21, 2017


Recent polling by the Wall Street Journal suggests that Americans have become skeptics about international trade, with less than half believing that cross-border commerce is, on balance, beneficial. A vociferous third go further, agreeing with their new protectionist-in-chief that “our free trade has led to a lot of bad things happening.” And while President Trump’s trade agenda is yet to be fully shaped, the outline of what he wants is becoming clear: high tariff walls to curb competition from imports and more stringent Buy American laws for U.S. manufacturers — all in the name of protecting domestic jobs.

So what should Americans who reflexively cringe at the economic nationalism currently in vogue say to the skeptics? One option is to point to history: countries in the post-war era that have relied upon high protectionist tariffs and “buy domestic” import-substitution schemes — think India, Brazil and Argentina — lost their economic mojo and only began to recover their places in the sun when they opened their borders.

But there’s also an argument that doesn’t require historical perspective. Just look around at the most successful American manufacturers, and observe how access to global markets sustains their American workforces. Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. As David Autor of MIT reminds, trade produces losers as well as winners. But this reality can’t be allowed to block the American economy’s only plausible path toward ongoing prosperity.

Hogs and Drugs

Take Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle maker headquartered in Wisconsin that sells its iconic “hogs” in a zillion countries. The jobs of the men and women who make those Fat Boys growl depend upon imported components — transmissions from Japan, wheels from Australia, tires from Spain and Thailand. While Harley declines to reveal specifics, it’s a safe bet that, all told, about one-third of the value comes from outside the United States.

It’s a similar story for Merck, the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant that makes some of its lifesaving potions in Elkton, Va. (pop. 2,042). Because it operates there in a free-trade zone authorized by the federal government, Merck can save serious amounts by importing chemicals. But nobody has told Merck’s Elkton workers that free trade puts food on their tables.  

Likewise for the venerable diesel-maker Cummins, which is based in Indianapolis. Cummins’s American workers could not make those engines as well or as cheaply without key imports including gaskets, bearings and cylinder heads.

Half of the goods the United States imports are inputs and raw materials that are necessary for U.S. companies to operate their domestic production. Those imports are absolutely essential to the health of American manufacturing.

“Half of the goods the United States imports are inputs and raw materials that are necessary for U.S. companies to operate their domestic production,” explains Scott Miller, a former Procter & Gamble executive who now edits TradeVistas, an economic research website for the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. Those imports, Miller stresses, are “absolutely essential to the health of American manufacturing.”

True, Miller adds, the U.S. government could adopt the Indian-Brazilian-Argentine import-substitution model to force domestic manufacturers to bring their global supply chains back to American shores. But there would be consequences in the form of higher consumer prices, problematic quality resulting from undermining competition — and ultimately fewer American jobs.

Ironically, though, you aren’t likely to hear the CEOs of American export-oriented companies celebrating the role of imports in sustaining the jobs of their workforces. When I first started writing about the importance of imported components to domestic jobs in the 1990s, Harley-Davidson’s supply-chain managers freely acknowledged that they bought the best parts wherever they could be found. But these days the company is lying low, loath to offend customers who apparently assume their hogs were born and raised exclusively in Menomonee Falls and Kansas City. Cummins and Merck are hardly more communicative about their dependence on international trade, both for imported components and markets.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

The explanation for the low profile of American corporations whose employees as well as profits depend on open trade is that few companies are prepared to stick their proverbial necks out when political leaders find it more convenient to pretend they never took Econ 101. Echoing Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, Bill Clinton said he was for “free and fair trade” without specifying what the qualifier “fair” meant. Barack Obama was hardly better: his three favorite words, he often told audiences, were “Made in America.” Meanwhile, the populist from Mar-a-Lago — who does everything bigger — says that his four favorite words are “Made in the USA.”

Over the years, America’s corporate leaders have gotten the message: limit the anti-protectionist talk to only friends and family. There’s no good reason to spend goodwill on the topic, especially when corporate America has bigger fish to fry in the form of corporate tax reform and deregulation.

This see-no-evil approach has often translated into economic buffoonery when presidents and CEOs talk about trade to the American people. Obama, for instance, perfectly illustrated the point in a February 2012 speech to Boeing’s workforce in Everett, Washington. That’s where Boeing makes its newest commercial aircraft, the dazzling 787 Dreamliner. “Boeing has suppliers in all 50 states, providing goods and services like the airplane’s ground-breaking carbon fiber composite aircraft structure from Kansas, advanced jet engines from Ohio, wing components from Oklahoma, and revolutionary electrochromic windows from Alabama,” Obama boasted. American workers, he said, are the best in the world.

Boeing executives on that stage beamed enigmatically — perhaps because they were aware that some 70 percent of the Dreamliner’s parts come from an atlas’ worth of countries. “The wings are produced in Japan, the engines in the United Kingdom and the United States, the flaps and ailerons in Canada and Australia, the fuselage in Japan, Italy and the United States, the horizontal stabilizers in Italy, the landing gear in France, and the doors in Sweden and France,” a study by the Swedish National Board of Trade concluded. “All in all, a Boeing airplane is not particularly American.”

Perhaps irony is less surprising in the case of Donald Trump — but it is still striking. The president’s private Boeing 757, famous for its silk-lined master bedroom and solid gold bathroom fixtures, is kept airborne by Rolls Royce 211 fanjets, the UK-made workhorse of an entire generation of Boeing aircraft. Somehow, as Trump campaigned in front of the plane railing against nefarious foreigners stealing our manufacturing jobs, nobody seemed to take note of the “RR” logo prominently displayed on the portside engine.

As for the new American president’s passion for slapping high tariffs on imports from Mexico, perhaps Trump might consider some awkward facts. The Dreamliner’s wiring comes from Mexico. And, in return, the Mexicans are among Boeing’s most enthusiastic customers for the big plane — Mexico’s president Enrique Pena Nieto proudly flies one. Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, who seems no more enthusiastic about throwing his weight behind open trade than the CEOs of Merck, Cummins and Harley-Davidson, did not respond to an invitation to say whether he thought that was a pretty good deal for his company and its nearly 150,000 U.S.-based workers.

Somebody (other than college professors and think-tank nerds) needs to get back in the game of explaining the benefits of trade to American audiences. The Geneva-based World Trade Organization is giving it a shot. In a recent speech, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo appealed to a younger audience: “A jar of Nutella can contain hazelnuts from Turkey, palm oil from Malaysia, cocoa from Nigeria, sugar from Brazil and flavoring from China,” he noted. Meanwhile the company, which is headquartered in Italy, has a plant in Canada that brews up the chocolatey goodness sold by retailers across America.

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It’s easy to dismiss the awkward silence of American corporate executives who know American jobs (and profits) depend on global supply chains simply as pragmatism-as-usual. But one indirect consequence, the sheer ignorance of American workers and politicians as to how their bread is buttered, is dangerously exposing the global economy to uncertainty. Is it too much to ask corporate America to explain that economic nationalism is a recipe for stagnation and joblessness?

main topic: Economy: Global
related topics: Business, Trade