An ode to imports — the critically undervalued side of trade
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As we celebrate World Trade Month, let's not forget that trade includes imports too. A casual observer of recent statements coming from Washington, D.C., might be forgiven for imagining that trade is a one-way street — exports only.

For example, the proposed border-adjustment tax (BAT) in the House would raise the cost of imports by 20 percent, costing the average U.S. household up to $1,700 in the first year alone, according to analysis by the National Retail Federation. The administration is launching several reviews that single out the role that trade deficits — and presumably the role imports cause in creating those mathematical imbalances — play in U.S. job losses.

“Buy American” requirements seem to be in vogue with Congress and in the executive branch. Additionally, new tariffs have been threatened on imports in connection with individual countries, industries and companies. 

The piling on against imports during the first few months of 2017 seems unprecedented, hitting levels that haven’t been seen in Washington since the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act ushered in the Great Depression. 

But in some respects, this is nothing new. Many of the most ardent trade promoters often have a blind spot when it comes to imports. Privately, they will acknowledge the amazing power of imports to create millions of high-paying U.S. jobs; deliver benefits to consumers through affordable choices; support U.S. manufacturing through materials and parts that might not be available domestically and stimulate foreign demand for U.S. products. Publicly, politicians and policymakers prefer to dote primarily over exports and their ability to create high-paying U.S. jobs.

Exports are good, but imports are too.

What’s particularly fascinating is that this anti-import mood has gripped the Beltway at a time when trade enjoys record-high levels of support among ordinary Americans. Poll after poll shows that Americans like trade — both imports and exports — and believe it creates opportunities and jobs. While support in many of these polls took a dip during 2016 — no surprise since most of the presidential candidates were doing their best to complain about trade policies — it is rebounding nicely in 2017. 

That’s to be expected. Americans know what many politicians are afraid to admit — trade flows, including imports, work for America. We encounter imports everywhere we go. When we get dressed, when we eat, when we drive to work, when we text our families and friends, when we go on vacation and when we relax, we benefit from our ability to import. Look around and you will see what we mean:

  • Ninety-eight percent of the clothes and shoes Americans wear are imported. Those imports support four-million U.S. jobs — in design, logistics, retail, supply chain and so on. These U.S.-based workers contribute, on average, about 70 percent of the value of each of these imported articles.
  • Are you reading this on an imported iPhone? Look on the back and you’ll see it was designed in California.
  • How about your U.S.-made car? More than likely, it was made in several locations throughout North America, using a mixture of domestic and imported parts and a supply chain that employs hundreds of thousands of Americans.
  • Is that car running on gas? We import that too.
  • You know that handbag, tote, backpack, or briefcase you carry all of your wonderful imported products to work or school? It was imported too.
  • Enjoying a cup of coffee or eating a banana? Yup, imported.

The list goes on.

We are a nation of importers. That is a good thing, because those imports save us money, keep us employed, feed us, help us get around, support our economy and give us access to cool, fun stuff. Because those imports also keep people employed in other parts of the world, they directly support the ability of those foreign workers to buy goods made in and exported from the United States.

Five years ago, former World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy recognized this when he said, “To shoot at imports is to shoot yourself in the foot, because you are undermining your exports as well.” 

Fortunately, some have chosen to defend imports close to home because they understand that raising the costs of imports means higher prices Americans have to pay for everyday products. Such policies also trigger copycat behavior by our trading partners.

Back in January, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Biden move to tap oil reserves draws GOP pushback MORE (R-S.C.) labeled tariffs on Mexico a huge barrier to economic growth, noting that, Any tariff we can levy, they can levy. Any policy proposal which drives up costs of Corona, tequila, or margaritas is a big-time bad idea. Mucho Sad.”

Others, such as Sens. John CornynJohn CornynCongress's goal in December: Avoid shutdown and default Mental health: The power of connecting requires the power of investing Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE (R-Texas), Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonConservatives target Biden pick for New York district court GOP anger with Fauci rises Cotton swipes at Fauci: 'These bureaucrats think that they are the science' MORE (R-Ark.), and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeRubio vows to slow-walk Biden's China, Spain ambassador nominees Senate confirms Thomas Nides as US ambassador to Israel Flake, Cindy McCain among latest Biden ambassadors confirmed after delay MORE (R-Ariz.), have also eloquently translated costly border tax and tariff policy into higher prices for U.S. consumers or fewer jobs for U.S. workers. We need more of these voices.

The last few months have presented significant concerns for U.S. communities that depend upon imports, and the coming months may be equally challenging. But in May, as we celebrate World Trade Month, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves — and those who represent us — of the innumerable ways that imports continue to work for America.

Jon Gold is vice president at the National Retail Federation (NRF). Julia Hughes is president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association (USFIA). Stephen Lamar is executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA). Hun Quach is vice president for International Trade at the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA). NRF, USFIA, AAFA, and RILA collectively support the annual Imports Work Week, which occurred May 8-12. 


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