The most rational statement about a small furor in the U.S. Senate campaign was uttered by a tea party organizer. Yes, you read that right. The staff of Sen. Richard Lugar committed a political faux pas by distributing campaign shirts that were made in El Salvador. An astute operative of a Lugar opponent circulated a photo showing the label, according to The Associated Press report. Indiana Democrats expressed outrage. The plot thickened with the revelation that Hoosier tea party members, gathering to endorse state Treasurer Richard Mourdock’s 2012 Republican primary challenge to Lugar, were selling $20 T-shirts that were also made in El Salvador. Lugar’s political director, David Willkie, told The AP the campaign’s choice of El Salvadoran T-shirts was “a mistake” and “an oversight,” and that the offending garments were being collected and replaced with American-made shirts. Monica Boyer, co-chair of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate (the tea party people backing Mourdock) called the fuss “petty.” “It would be great if we could purchase items in America,” she told The AP. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do that before. See, you just can’t find them. It’s a sad situation we’re in. Preferably, we would like everything made in America.” She’s right. Of course, such reasonability is rare in political campaigns, where no “issue” is ever too ridiculous.
Is a debate over the migration of manufacturing jobs from the U.S. to foreign countries a valid one? Yes, of course. Is the use of shirts made in El Salvador by any of the Senate candidates an egregious example of that issue? No. Nearly 100 percent of apparel worn by Americans is imported to some degree, according to 2010 Census data quoted in an ABC News series, “Made in America.” Those Lugar campaign T-shirts, for example, were bought from an Indiana company and contained material purchased from the U.S. They were sewn together in El Salvador.
In 2010, Americans consumed $104 billion in apparel and textile imports, according to U.S. International Trade Commission figures cited by the Philadelphia Inquirer. In that same time period, the U.S. exported just $17 billion worth of apparel and textiles.
If you’re in a private place, do a quick inventory on what you’re wearing right now. I did, and felt far too worldly for a guy from rural Vigo County. My shoes were made by Skechers, which has factories in China, Mexico, Brazil and Romania. Under Armour (my socks) has plants in Asia, Central America, South America and Mexico. My shirt, by Yard, came from Italy, as did my belt, and my Hanes came most likely from either Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic or some other undisclosed location. Even my Levi blue jeans came from abroad — that iconic U.S. company closed its last domestic factory in 2004, moving those operations from San Antonio to Costa Rica.
If you discovered an article of clothing manufactured in the States, it was likely either a fluke or a concerted effort on your part to seek out those companies still competing against cheaper-made foreign shirts and jeans.
It’s ironic that Lugar got targeted for contributing to the prevalence of foreign products in the U.S. marketplace. For years, Lugar has promoted the home-grown alternatives to imported oil. Despite his initiatives, the country’s dependence on petroleum drawn from fields in the Middle East, Russia, Africa and other foreign nations continues to grow. Nearly 60 percent of the oil consumed in America comes from elsewhere, and that reliance leads us into wars and economic volatility.
So, unless they’re driving electric cars, those critics of the Lugar campaign’s El Salvador T-shirts probably have foreign gas powering their vehicles.
Do those critics wear sneakers? If so, they’d better be New Balance brand, because it is the only major athletic footwear company still operating U.S. factories, according to the Washington Post and the business news website Minyanville.com.
Do they iron their clothes? If so, they’ll need to use a HPI Seymour ironing board. That firm, located in Seymour, Ind., is the last surviving U.S. ironing board maker, Minyanville.com reported.
Do they play or listen to piano music? If so, it must be a Steinway or a Mason & Hamlin, the last two major builders still crafting the instruments in his country.
Do they use light bulbs in their houses? Only a few American companies still manufacture light bulbs, including Long Life and HPS.
The situation shouldn’t be blamed solely on President Obama and the current Congress. The global economy has drawn manufacturers overseas throughout the past two decades, and that shift accelerated after 2000. Some industries have simply disappeared from the American manufacturing landscape. Eleven years ago, only 57 percent of apparel consumed by the U.S. was imported. Today, as earlier mentioned, that figure is nearly 100 percent.
These “gotcha” exchanges over a couple hundred ordinary T-shirts offer voters nothing. (Should the El Salvadoran shirts be burned? Given to the poor? Shredded?) Instead, let’s hear the candidates explain their plan to increase manufacturing in America in all kinds of industries. Then maybe a few more ironing board manufacturers will open up in Indiana so Hoosiers can press the wrinkles out of our growing number of American-made T-shirts.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@