Matthew Tully: Foreign-made goods are cheap, but they cost us dearly
Foreign-made goods are cheap, but they cost us dearly
By Matt Tully, Indianapolis Star
I couldn't help myself as I walked through the Target store in Glendale.
The impulse to buy struck me when I spotted a painting of Chicago Cubs jerseys of various eras in the team's dubious history. As I stood in the aisle inspecting the artwork, I considered how nice it would look on my 4-month-old son's bedroom wall.
So, despite my reluctance to saddle him with the same frustration of being a Cubs fan that has haunted my family for several generations, I grabbed the painting, approved of its $20 cost and tossed it in my shopping cart.
A couple of days later, when I took a closer look at the painting, I noticed for the first time a small American flag in the background, behind the jerseys. I turned the painting around and saw that it was part of the "Cooperstown Collection" and officially endorsed by Major League Baseball.
Cooperstown, baseball jerseys and a U.S. flag. Everything about this painting screamed Americana.
Except one thing.
"Made in China," read a tag on the back.
I have no idea why that surprised me, but it did. Even this item, I thought, even a painting representing America's pastime, a painting clearly tailored to inspire patriotism, couldn't be made here?
This isn't a new complaint, and it's not about xenophobia. But it seems this country should take a serious look at the long-term costs of buying so many things, from dinner plates to bookcases, that are manufactured or assembled elsewhere.
Recently, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, caused a stir after noticing that many of the items for sale in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History were made in China -- things such as statues of presidents and models of monuments.
And although many of us complain about such incongruities, and about U.S. corporations shipping jobs to other countries, we also fill our shopping carts routinely with items made overseas.
We all know why. It's simple math.
"A country like China has an enormous glut of poorly paid workers," said Alan Tonelson, an expert on the Chinese-U.S. trade gap and a fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.
Many labor-intensive goods are much cheaper to produce elsewhere and import to America because of sharply reduced labor costs. So you can buy a Chicago Cubs painting for $20 as opposed to the $40 or $60 it would cost if produced at fair wages in this country, Tonelson said. The discount we receive at the checkout counter, however, represents only one side of the story.
"If you look at Americans as only being consumers, you'll assume this is acceptable," Tonelson said. "But if you look at us as both consumers and workers, you can't conclude the migration of those jobs has been a net plus for this country. We end up paying a very high cost for these so-called cheap consumer goods."
Each beer mug or towel made elsewhere is a job that doesn't exist here and an income tax that isn't paid here. The trend has resulted in plants and companies that no longer exist here. Then, of course, there are the negative environmental effects as well as the idea of indirectly supporting the poor wage laws and lackluster workplace protections found in many other countries.
Last week, as the Fourth of July approached, I drove around town to see where things that feel like America were made. Barbecue grills at Lowe's came from China, as did American flag plates at Marsh. At one store, I spotted a Disney sticker book made in Malaysia; at another, fireworks made in Thailand. At American Eagle Outfitters in Carmel, there was a shirt with an American eagle emblazoned on the front. It was made in Vietnam. If you want to get a sense of the scope of the issue, look around your house and see how long it takes to find something with a "Made in the U.S.A." label.
Tackling this problem won't be easy, and some likely don't consider it a problem at all. Persuading all of us to pay more for the things we buy would be tough, if not impossible. I certainly don't want to pay two or three times as much as usual the next time I decide to buy a new shirt or coffee mug.
Still, it's time for a discussion, and perhaps even a little action. So here's what I did: I returned that Cubs painting. Eventually, I'll buy my son one made by a worker who I know was paid a fair wage.