June 13, 2013

Our View: 'Buy American' policy would save U.S. jobs

The federal government should buy only American-made athletic shoes for U.S. troops.

When members of the U.S. military wear government-issued gear, it’s American-made.

Almost everything from their boots to their berets is made in the USA, but there is one troubling exception.

When a member of the Army or Air Force needs shoes to wear to work out and stay in shape, he or she gets a voucher, not a pair of sneakers. And that taxpayer-funded voucher can be used to buy shoes from anywhere in the world.

It might sound like a small thing, but it’s not small to the 900 Mainers who work at factories in Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Norway making New Balance shoes, one of the last American athletic shoe companies.  

Those jobs are in jeopardy as the United States pursues the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that would lower the tariff on imported shoes. This duty keeps American companies competitive with those in low-wage countries like Vietnam, which has a robust athletic shoe industry.

Trade pacts, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, have cost thousands of American manufacturing jobs, and have caused the near disappearance of the Maine shoe-making industry. There is a consensus between economists and leaders of both parties that the nation benefits more from globalization than it loses, but that doesn’t mean the government of the people should abandon the people who still have manufacturing jobs.

At least part of the answer is a pair of bills supported by all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation would mandate the military buy American-made athletic footwear, just as they do for boots and dress shoes.

New Balance estimates that a buy-American requirement would create 200 jobs. That would make a big difference in communities in central Maine, which has been slow to recover from the Great Recession.  

More jobs would be protected by extending the tariffs on imported footwear, at least as long as workers in those countries earn starvation wages that would lay waste to American jobs.   

The Obama administration should make preserving what’s left of the domestic shoe industry a priority for these negotiations.

But the United States should do one thing that does not require any international discussion: When a U.S. serviceman or servicewoman is out for a run, they should be wearing U.S.-made shoes.

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