Why holiday shopping deals are at the root of our jobs problem

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Alongside the well-established Thanksgiving traditions of eating turkey and playing touch football exists Black Friday deal hunting. We love a deal, and we really don’t care where that bargain comes from. Incoming President Donald Trump wants to bring manufacturing jobs back to America but our love for cheap stuff might make it impossible.

When cost is not an issue, Americans are very patriotic. A recent survey by Consumer Reports shows a substantial majority asserting willingness to buy an American-made product over one manufactured abroad.

But what is an American-made product? Most of what we consume — electronics, clothing, automobiles and packaged goods — involve multiple steps of production and combinations of raw materials, components and labor.

The value chains, as they are known, are complex for many popular American products. Even for many foreign-manufactured products, a significant portion of their economic value inures to American workers. For example, a recent study by the Wharton School shows that 40 cents of every dollar of imports from Mexico went to American businesses. Another analysis shows that 75 American companies manufacture components incorporated into an iPhone imported into the US from China.

These small data points are part of a larger trend: the merchandise we snatch up on Black Friday — even the imported stuff — usually incorporates the productive activities of our citizens. Identifying where they are involved is salient: from creating and manufacturing complex components to selling and servicing completed products.

Jobs in the middle — the combination of components and American intellectual property — are the jobs being done elsewhere. Companies choose to structure production overseas for a variety of reasons: Labor rates are cheaper, workers have less negotiating leverage, workforce conditions are less stringent and international tax rules encourage allocation of portions of the value chain outside of the United States. In other words, companies are being encouraged to use non-U.S. workers to make the products we consume.

Supporters of international trade point out that this allocation of labor — the separation of roles between the workers who create things, and those who build them at scale — allows for nations and businesses to specialize and be more efficient. This efficiency results in lower prices for the consumer or higher profits to the creator.

And therein lies the reality of the issue. Our workers miss out on manufacturing jobs because the cost of their labor is comparatively expensive. It’s not that we can’t do more manufacturing here, we are simply making a choice not to.

We must accept that many of our products would become more expensive if we kept a bigger chunk of the value chain in the United States. Try telling that to a Black Friday shopper.

Consider how resistant many of our largest employers and political leaders are to raising the minimum wage or encouraging unionization. Would they be willing to pay more to use American labor, or would they expect our workers to be satisfied with the wages and workforce conditions that prevail in India, China or Vietnam?

While American consumers say they want to purchase American-made products, they will only do so if they are priced the same as a foreign-sourced alternative.  A recent Associated Press/Gfk poll shows 71% of Americans would not pay more for a U.S.-sourced product if a cheaper foreign-sourced alternative were available.

Shoppers at the checkout with a flat screen TV or a cashmere sweater for Dad surely realize that low price comes with a cost. We talk a great game for bringing manufacturing jobs home. But are we truly willing to pay for it?

Originally posted in WashingtonPost.com

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