Cantwell's cheaper shoes are pinching

Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have a proposal to lift tariffs from imported shoe wear, saving consumers (or shoe companies) close to $1 billion annually. But what's in it for shoemakers in sweatshops?

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Sen. Maria Cantwell

Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have a proposal to lift tariffs from imported shoe wear, saving consumers (or shoe companies) close to $1 billion annually. But what's in it for shoemakers in sweatshops?

On the sensibility spectrum, it's hard to top a title like Sen. Maria Cantwell's "The Affordable Footwear Act." The words tumble out bourbon-smooth: affordable footwear.

The bill's name even bigfoots the evocative Barefoot Schoolboy Act of 1895, the Washington law that established school-levy equalization. Americans sympathize with suffering barefoot schoolboys, but bargain shoes? That one transcends gender, race, and all manner of hoof-related wants.

Cantwell has teamed with Senate colleague Patty Murray and Republicans Pat Roberts and Roy Blunt to craft the legislation that knocks down onerous duties on imported footwear, a legacy of 1930s-era protectionism. The Tri-City Herald reports that the bill would have saved Americans $800 million last year, presupposing shoe distributors and retailers passed the attendant savings along to consumers.

Cantwell's bill also throws light on the collapse of the nation's shoe-manufacturing sector. Duties on imported shoes affect all Americans, because almost all shoes are imported nowadays. In a global economy, spookily cheap labor and often-Dickensian working conditions in China, Vietnam, and India are a windfall for American shoppers.

And so the Cantwell bill snaps into place: Erase an outmoded, regressive tariff, and save consumers millions on the price of shoes. Could there be enemies of affordable footwear, organized opposition to something so grossly obvious?

Cantwelll's bill will pass Congress with the kind of ease that should immediately arouse suspicion in the hearts of Northwest Hobbesians. Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and, well, you know. This good bill could be a great, substantive bill, one that also addresses some of the less-savory aspects of human nature.

Here's a modest proposal: Somewhere in the Affordable Footwear Act embed a human rights carrot. Duty waivers would only apply to overseas factories that meet a specific human rights or anti-sweatshop benchmark. Receive the waiver and spur additional business.

Paul Wolfe, a legislative aide for Cantwell, said that such a provision is technically possible. However, various labor and environmental standards are already codified in NAFTA and other free trade agreements. Linking tariff reform to labor and human rights could be redundant or worse, toothless and ineffective.

The potential hitches are significant. Trade acts are dense and arcane, with industry lobbyists whispering to bill scribes and bill scribes scribing away. The central question of government, qui bono? (who benefits?), would reach from Nike's Phil Knight to poor families hunting for affordable kids' shoes. The benefits would not, however, extend to drained Vietnamese sweatshop workers (nor should they, many economists would argue).

We live in the post-GATT World Trade Organization era where fiddling with tariffs is a big no-no. This bill, however, offers a rare exception. It's about eliminating, not creating a trade barrier. Lawmakers can be as innovative and nettlesome or as inspired and meretricious as they want.

There is at least one non-amending option: Sen. Cantwell and company could ape LBJ and convene a come-to-Jesus meeting with America's shoe barons. We'll do this, but you'll be expected to demand X from foreign producers. The philosophy behind a closed-door shakedown is as transactional and crude as it is simple: When you've got 'em by the, er, aglets, their hearts and minds will follow.

In the coming years, Vietnam, China, and other developing countries will reach a tipping point. Something will give, worker discontent will manifest itself politically, or universal standards will ultimately shame the shameless.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, last spring's Solomon Katz lecturer at the University of Washington and the author of The Honor Code, How Moral Revolutions Happen, posits that appealing to a nation's honor is one of the most effective catalysts for advancing human rights. Tinkering with international trade could, however, produce a Niebuhr-esque outcome, underlining American hubris and the limits of prescriptive power. Would a human rights benchmark appeal to a country's sense of national or cultural honor or would it have just the opposite effect?

In the end, a re-jiggered Affordable Footwear Act would attempt to harmonize men-are-no-angels American realism with the Judaic notion of Tikkun olam, to repair the world. Okay, yes, it's a pretentious-sounding argument.  Advocates should nix any reference to Federalist No. 51 or Jewish mysticism. How about this: Cheaper shoes for fewer sweatshops?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson