The Horror of Cheap Clothes

January 13, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In the mystery novel ''Trent's Last Case'' there is a scene in Simpson's restaurant in London, where Trent asks his companion to speak softly when ordering a glass of milk in that posh place because the head waiter has a weak heart. Let us hope that Americans with hearts as weak as that head waiter's did not notice their government's behavior last week.

The Clinton administration faced a crucial decision concerning a Communist regime in Asia: What to do about North Korea making a mockery of treaty obligations, en route to becoming a nuclear power? By week's end the administration had dealt sternly with a Communist regime in Asia. It had taken ''bold'' action to protect Americans from cheap Chinese textiles.

After the president said, ''North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb,'' aides said he misspoke and really meant that North Korea could not be allowed to become a ''nuclear power,'' meaning equipped with an unspecified number of weapons and an undefined delivery system. Then the administration flexed its muscles where it evidently thinks muscle matters most. It acted against the menace of cheap clothes.

For years the United States has assigned quotas limiting textile imports in more than 3,000 categories from 41 nations. China allegedly is evading its quotas by transshipping through about 25 countries.

Mickey Kantor, U.S. trade representative, claims China shipped 3.6 million sweaters to Macao, the Portuguese enclave in China, where they were labeled ''made in Macao'' and shipped to America. Mr. Kantor also says that 625 million kilograms of Chinese towels for cleaning machinery were similarly shipped through Honduras. Hondurans did cut the cloth into towels. Still, the horror, the horror.

The government asserts that China is transshipping $2 billion of textiles products. This seems implausible to citizen James Bovard, a one-man truth squad who is more than a match for tendentious legions of protectionists in American government and industry. He says the $2 billion figure is somehow derived from an investigation begun in 1991:

''The Customs Service brought in two busloads of agents to raid importers' offices in the Empire State Building. Hundreds of thousands of documents were seized, file clerks were held at gunpoint'' -- Drop that sweater or we'll shoot? -- ''and many companies' operations were severely disrupted. Yet after years of investigations, the Customs Service has secured guilty pleas regarding the import of only $2.7 million.'' A far cry from $2 billion.

Mr. Kantor says the government's action barring more than $1 billion of Chinese goods (A) will have ''little if any impact on American consumers'' and (B) will save many thousands of American jobs. Proposition A seems patently absurd. And if there is a shred of truth to proposition B, proposition A must be false. Impeding the import of inexpensive textile products will save some American textile jobs only if the impediment, by preventing U.S. consumers from buying the more than $1 billion of Chinese goods they otherwise would have bought, forces them to pay substantially higher prices for American-made goods.

Protectionism advances beneath a fog of careless or ideologically loaded language. Nations that open their markets to foreign goods are said to have made ''concessions.'' Why is it a ''concession'' to give one's citizens an expanded range of choices for cheaper goods that enlarge the reach of the citizens' incomes? And what of U.S. ''retaliation'' against China: We are ''retaliating'' against China's ability to satisfy the preferences of American consumers?

Thundering headlines (Washington Post, ''U.S. Moves to Punish China''; New York Times, ''A Punitive Move''; Los Angeles Times, ''U.S. Cracks Down'') obscure the fact that the people being punished include American consumers, especially low-income buyers of the cheapest apparel. However, if North Korea ever loads an ICBM nose cone with cheap sweaters, it will be in deep trouble.

The American Textile Manufacturers' Institute is a lobby for an industry whose record profits in 1992 were, Mr. Bovard says, five times higher than the average U.S. manufacturer's earnings on sales. The Institute issued a statement of rapture about the U.S. government's ''bold'' action.

Boldly twisting bad laws? Boldly fattening a prosperous interest group? Speak such nonsense softly, out of consideration for people as sensitive as Simpson's head waiter.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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