Clearing Up a Sock Misunderstanding

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NPR reporters are used to covering controversial issues, like abortion or stem cell research. NPR's Adam Davidson didn't expect trouble when he started work on a story about socks. He offers a reporter's notebook on what happened next.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

NPR reporters are used to covering controversial issues like abortion or stem cell research. NPR's Adam Davidson didn't expect trouble when he started to work on a story about socks. He offers this Reporter's Notebook on what happened next.

ADAM DAVIDSON: I get a call from the CFO of a big apparel company. He says people in the sock industry are talking about me, and they don't like me. They think I'm pro-tariff. Later, a sock factory owner tells me he doesn't trust me. He thinks I'm anti-tariff.

Before I started this story, I had no opinion. I didn't even think the U.S. made socks anymore. And I certainly never worried about sock tariffs, the taxes put on imported hosiery. But this kept happening. Suddenly, everyone thinks I'm some sort of sock ideologue, although nobody can agree on what my ideology is.

Now, here's the truth. I am pretty skeptical of tariffs in general. Import taxes are a very old and unfashionable idea. I don't think you could find too many professional economists who support sock tariffs. I couldn't, and I tried. In order to find sock tariff fans, it helps to visit Fort Payne, Alabama, the sock capital of the U.S.A. I went there to report on sock tariffs for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

I met Jimmy Baker, owner of Baker Hosiery.

Mr. JIMMY BAKER (Owner, Baker Hosiery, Inc.): Without the tariffs I feel almost assured that the U.S. socks industry will disappear in the next five years.

DAVIDSON: You'll be out of a job.

Mr. BAKER: I'll be out of a job and so will about 300 other people who works for me.

DAVIDSON: Do you want to sit there and lecture Baker on the efficiency of a vibrant global competition when he's just trying to keep the lights on?

Then consider John Shugart. He has the exact opposite view even though his sock factory is just down the road.

So we're about to enter the factory.

Mr. JOHN SHUGART (Owner, WY Shugart & Sons, Inc.): Yeah, go out into the plants. Let's go look and see how we make socks.

DAVIDSON: Shugart hates the tariffs because he has business partners abroad. I came up with this little speech I gave to Shugart and Baker and everyone else in the sock industry. I told them that it's not my job to have a position on tariffs. All I can do - all I'm supposed to do - is find out the truth of what's going on and report it honestly.

I don't know if Jimmy Baker, the guy afraid of losing his factory, bought it. He didn't say anything, but he did get up from his chair and walked me to the sewing room. He showed me his 150 Matec Mono four knitting machines, and he introduced me to some of his workers. And I got to admit that if I were in Jimmy Baker's socks I wouldn't care about prevailing economic theory either.

SIMON: NPR's Adam Davidson.

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