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Are cheap imports worth loss of millions of jobs?

The gutting of the U.S. textile industry by a flood of cheap imports hits closest to home for the American cotton farmer — who for decades counted those mills as his best customer.

But there is an equally alarming specter hovering over the entire economy. Manufacturing, so long the vehicle that made the American dream possible for millions and helped this country to become a world power, is on its sickbed. And the patient may well be terminal.

Government figures tell the story: A paltry 11 percent of the U.S. workforce is now employed in manufacturing. Just since early 2001, the number has declined a full two percentage points.

In the last 15 years, manufactured products imported into the U.S. have increased more than 20 percent, now accounting for over half of Americans' purchases.

Whether it be a tsunami of cheap textiles, or DVD players, or steel, or you-name-it, more and more of it is coming from offshore manufacturing operations, where labor is skilled… and cheap.

As plant after plant after plant has closed in the U.S., putting millions out of work, the mantra has been, “Oh well, they were lower-paying jobs, and we're just as well off without them. We'll retrain everyone for the service and high tech sectors. That's where the growth will be.”

Skill training became a national obsession, as everyone from garment workers to secretaries set about learning computer programming and other careers sure to boom in the Brave New World of the 21st Century.

But as in “The Wizard of Oz,” when the curtain was pulled and the illusion exposed, the promise of all those service/high tech/managerial jobs was so much smoke and mirrors. They, too, have floated away to countries where cadres of highly qualified workers can be had for a fraction of the cost in the U.S. Whether telemarketers in the Philippines or sophisticated computer professionals in India or textile-makers in China, American jobs are increasingly at risk. Today's college grad must not only worry about competing with his/her fellows for an ever-diminishing number of jobs, but also must compete with equally or better educated foreign workers willing to settle for a smaller paycheck.

It's now estimated that one of every three jobs in the U.S. is in danger of going overseas.

But, the “experts” say, all this means cheaper products for American consumers, who'll spend fewer dollars to buy the same goods. The experts don't say, though, how much benefit cheaper goods will be to consumers who don't have paychecks to buy those products. Prosperity is just around the corner, we're told, but there are over 2.5 million more people jobless today than in 2001, more than 8 million in all. Toss in all the underemployed — those who've taken jobs below their education/skill levels just to have some money coming in — and we're talking double digit numbers.

Textile and other manufacturing jobs may not have been rocket science. But they gave a lot of people a living wage and helped provide a measure of stability for many small, rural communities around the nation.

Thousands of those displaced workers now wonder, “Where are the better jobs we were promised?”

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