Marco Rubio and Donald Trump are confused about American manufacturing.

Marco Rubio and Donald Trump Are Very Confused About Boots, iPhones, and U.S. Manufacturing

Marco Rubio and Donald Trump Are Very Confused About Boots, iPhones, and U.S. Manufacturing

Moneybox
Commentary about business and finance.
Jan. 21 2016 3:01 PM

Do Marco Rubio and Donald Trump Know a Thing About Manufacturing?

One thinks his boots are from Wisconsin. The other wants iPhones made in America. There’s a reason they’re both confused.

Florsheim bootie.
Made in ... India?

Illustration by Sofya Levina. Images courtesy of Amazon andBonilla1879/Thinkstock

Poor Marco Rubio. The third-place GOP candidate faced widespread mockery earlier this month when a photograph of him in high-heeled Florsheim boots began circulating. Though the Florida senator initially expressed bafflement at the attention his footwear was receiving, he’s since found a new line of defense. At a Waverly, Iowa, campaign event this week, he responded to an audience question about those (very ugly) $135 boots by claiming that they had been made in Wisconsin. He was, he said, supporting U.S. industries by sporting them. “That means I did more for American business in one week than Barack Obama did in seven years,” he told the audience.

Here’s the problem: As PolitiFact explains, Rubio’s boots weren’t actually made in the U.S. Like many of the company’s other shoes, they were assembled in India. Indeed, PolitiFact notes that with the exception of one very, very high-end special collection, the vast majority of the company’s shoes are made somewhere in Asia. This is hardly a new trend: As anyone who’s looked inside a pair a Florsheims since the ’70s should know, it’s been decades since the company moved most of its once-domestic production abroad.

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In this, Florsheim is hardly alone: The Department of Commerce writes the U.S. imported 93 percent of the apparel products it consumed in 2012 (similar patterns seem to hold for more recent data). And though we exported $1.45 billion in footwear in 2014, that amount wilts in comparison with the quantity we brought into the country during the same time period. While Rubio and his colleagues would probably like to blame that discrepancy on the Obama administration, the decline of American production is a much older story. So few apparel items are made domestically—and the price tends to be so much higher—that buying “Made in America” goods has become a conscious choice. Those who pretend otherwise are either deceiving themselves or simply not paying attention.

It would be too easy, then, to dismiss Rubio as a willfully disingenuous liar in the way that PolitiFact does when it bestows its coveted “Pants on Fire” rating to his Wisconsin statement. Far more damning, however, is the possibility that he really did think that his boots had been made in Wisconsin. It suggests that Rubio understands less than he thinks about the way American industries have worked for the past half-century.

At least Rubio can take some comfort that he’s not alone among the GOP candidates in this respect. Earlier this week, Donald Trump proposed that as president he would somehow force Apple to build its “damn computers and things in this country.” As Re/code and other publications hastened to note, Trump evidently knows precious little about Apple’s production. Significant portions of its phones, for example, are manufactured in the United States, as are some of the company’s other devices. Final assembly, however, does mostly take place abroad, partly because worker salaries are so much lower there than they are domestically.

Even if we set aside the question of labor costs, however, Apple would likely find it difficult to simply shift toward domestic production, since few other companies have bothered to do so, meaning that there’s little infrastructure in place. Despite occasional promises that U.S. electronics production is on the rise, most corporate efforts in that direction—including those of Apple itself—seem to be about PR rather than quality control, human rights, or even old-fashioned patriotism. Capacity notes that though a small handful of electronics manufacturers have invested in on-shoring, they’ve dedicated a miniscule portion of their total value to such endeavors. They produce occasional products here for the same reason Rubio trumpets the false origins of his boots: It’s good for their image, and that’s good for their bottom line, whether or not the items in question actually sell well enough to justify the added expense.

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The Department of Commerce claims that electronics account for almost one-third of the U.S.’s total trade deficit—the gap between imports and exports—for manufactured goods. And though almost one-quarter of the electronics purchased in the U.S. were produced domestically, only two subindustries make more of their goods here than they do elsewhere: “Software and other prerecorded cds/tapes/records” and “electricity measuring/testing equipment.” Computers and related paraphernalia, meanwhile, still overwhelmingly originate abroad.

Overcoming figures like these would be a daunting project, but ignoring their import is harder still. In this context, Rubio’s dubious claims are revealing, as they help explain why the GOP is so confused about the way that American industry works. In his Waverly speech he cited the Florsheim brand name itself as evidence that the boots were Wisconsin-made. Here, the confusion is not entirely his fault. For years, so-called American heritage brands—apparel companies that stretch back into the pre-WWII era—have traded on their reputations to convince consumers that their goods are superior, even when they were produced in the same factories and from the same materials as their foreign competitors. Much like the “Designed by Apple in California” label on the underside of my computer, this allows them to suggest a connection with the U.S. that exceeds actual reality without actually lying.

Today, brands like Levi’s and L.L.Bean trade on the association of their names with national identity, enforcing the seams of their garments with the mere idea of America rather than careful stitching. This is an America that’s pure ideological construct. It’s powerful, upright without being uptight, and above all else it’s stereotypically masculine, a quality that Rubio seems desperate to convey in the wake of his Bootgate. Though some companies—the high-end shoe manufacturer Alden, for example—have maintained high standards by keeping their production in the states, their goods tend to be more niche-oriented, and their prices much higher. Newer apparel companies have sometimes embraced U.S. production, but as the example of American Apparel shows, that’s not always a sustainable business model. As with electronics production, larger heritage brands seem to embrace American manufacturing primarily for its symbolic allure, using it as a way to remind consumers of their history, not because it’s in their immediate interest. No one knows this better than Trump, whose clothing lines and campaign apparel are notoriously made in China.

Ultimately, American heritage is an aesthetic category rather than a material quality. A myth of stolid solidity with no substance of its own, it feeds both Rubio’s slip-up and Trump’s know-nothing bluster about Apple. For Rubio and Trump, American production isn’t a meaningful possibility—it’s a fantasy, a fetish object that supplants the real thing. In dedicating themselves to this abstraction, the candidates reveal a weakness. It’s not just that they may not know how to make America great again: They have no idea how America is doing in the first place.