Globe Editorial

It’s great to buy American, but let soldiers pick their sneakers

May 16, 2011

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FEDERAL LAW has long required that the clothing issued to US military personnel be made in America, as part of the broader rule requiring that military funds be used to purchase only items that are “grown, reprocessed, reused, or produced in the United States.’’

The made-in-America provision is waived when goods needed by the military are not readily available from domestic manufacturers in “satisfactory quality and sufficient quantity.’’ And a few items — notably running shoes and women’s underwear — are not included in the standard wardrobe issued to new enlisted personnel; recruits instead are given a cash allowance with which to purchase the items for themselves.

Not surprisingly, Boston-based New Balance, the only major company still manufacturing athletic footwear in the United States, would like the made-in-America rule to apply to running shoes as well. New Balance has factories in Boston, Lawrence, and three locations in Maine, and several members of Congress from New England, led by Niki Tsongas of Lowell, want the Pentagon to require newly enlisted soldiers, sailors, and airmen to wear only sneakers made in the USA.

It’s a noble sentiment, and if Tsongas had limited it to moral suasion she’d be on firm ground. But there aren’t enough sneakers made in the United States to provide enough choices for service members, and it would be unfair to force service members to wear only certain products in their off-duty lives.

The vast majority of footwear sold in the United States — 98 percent, according to congressional findings in 2007 — is imported from overseas. New Balance itself acknowledges that 75 percent of the shoes it sells in North America are foreign-made. Unlike helmets or fatigues, one style of sneaker is not suitable for everybody.

To minimize injuries, the Pentagon wants service members to wear athletic shoes that best suit “their individual physiology, running style, and individual comfort and fit requirements.’’ That isn’t consistent with restricting their choice to the market’s domestic sliver.

While economists have long questioned the wisdom of protectionist measures like the so-called Berry Amendment, the umbrella law obliging the military to buy American, many members of Congress consider it part of their job to look out for the specific interests of industries located in their districts. But Tsongas and her colleagues ought to bear in mind that they represent thousands of men and women in uniform, too. Taking away their freedom to buy comfortable running shoes so that New Balance can make more money is hardly the way to honor the “pride, dignity, and professionalism’’ of the US Armed Forces. New Balance should be encouraged instead to produce sneakers of such great value, comfort, and quality that customers will flock to buy them of their own free will.

“We have American soldiers fighting in our behalf, who represent this country with great pride, dignity, and professionalism, and I think are proud to wear American-made products,’’ Tsongas told the Globe last week.

No doubt she’s right. New Balance marketers, take note.