Exporting Jobs, Importing Cheese
The issues that come up during presidential elections involve food, directly or indirectly, more often than it would seem at first glance. For starters, there’s the obvious stuff: the morality of Bloomberg’s soda tax, the Broccoli Argument against Obamacare, and the question of extending expensive farm subsidies, to name a few. But questions of food are embedded in many other issues as well. You can’t talk about food politics without talking about regulation of businesses small and large, environmentalism, and even states’ rights (think of California’s foie gras ban). But the issue I’ve been thinking about the most in recent days is the question of sending American jobs overseas—and what that means for food imports.
The press has had a field day questioning Bain Capital’s sending of jobs overseas, much to Romney’s chagrin, and now even Ralph Lauren is under fire for manufacturing Team USA’s uniforms in China. In cases like these, where large companies make decisions of great financial substance, it’s easy to wag a finger at ‘The Man’ who decided to get the job done cheaply with non-American labor. But what about the international decisions each of us make every day in the grocery store?
Admittedly, choosing a domestic cheese over an import does not affect nearly as many people as choosing to mass-produce American clothing in a Chinese factory. Consumers seldom hold as much responsibility as producers. Additionally, with food, there are more considerations at play than money. For example, if I buy Parmigiano-Reggiano instead of Parmesan, it’s not because the Italian import is cheaper to produce and buy, because it's not—but it is a lot tastier. Food and luxury goods are two of the few categories where imports are actually more expensive (and generally considered to be of a better quality) than domestic products. Of course, this doesn’t apply to produce, especially since the rise in popularity of locavorism, but it still holds with processed foods like cheese, wine, and beer. We know it’s better to buy a tomato from the farm down the road than from Mexico. But how much damage are we doing if we buy that French Brie and not the small-batch washed-rind cheese from the nearest organic creamery?
The government does profit from an import tax on all foreign foods, which one could argue benefits US businesses indirectly. But the amount of business we give to other nations is significant. In 2011, we imported over $1 billion in cheese alone. Of course, it would damage the global economy to espouse an isolationist approach and significantly reduce the amount of money we spend on imports—but think of the benefits of pumping even a fraction of that $1 billion into domestic creameries. Think of how many of them might be able to hire extra employees. For us foodies, who, like Obama in 2008, might be accused of arugula elitism, it’s worth consideration.