Save the Alabama condom!

A sexy tale of free trade, stimulus politics, cheap Chinese prophylactics and imperiled American jobs. With guest appearances from Rush, Leno and impotent Republican senators.

Published March 25, 2009 8:45PM (EDT)

It isn't difficult to understand why the news that the U.S. Agency for International Development is planning to switch its condom procurement from an Alabama manufacturer to cheap foreign suppliers launched straight from the Kansas City Star to a million blogs around the world, Rush Limbaugh's radio show and Jay Leno's monologue. The story has everything: Sex, free trade, low-cost Chinese products, American jobs in peril, and ample opportunity for political bloviating. You don't have to go farther than the first paragraph to get the point:

At a time when the federal government is spending billions of stimulus dollars to stem the tide of U.S. layoffs, should that same government put even more Americans out of work by buying cheaper foreign products?

Some 300 Alabama jobs are said to be at issue, victimized by the fact that China can make cheap condoms for 2 cents a unit, compared to 5 cents for the made-in-America prophylactics. USAID distributes around 400 million condoms a year, so the pennies do add up.

I'm not going to take a position on whether saving 300 jobs in Alabama justifies essentially doubling USAID's condom budget, which presumably would mean fewer condoms distributed around the world, and more unwanted babies and sexually transmitted diseases. I'd just like to remind people of a little debate that occurred during the back-and-forth over Obama's stimulus package, when Republicans professed themselves shocked and appalled that the House had tried to slip funding for birth control, including condoms, into the bill. Does anybody recall what the House Minority Leader had to say at the time?

"How you can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives?" House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) asked after meeting with the president at the White House on Friday. "How does that stimulate the economy?"

Well, that's easy! If the contraceptives are made in the United States, then spending hundreds of millions of dollars can save those jobs, provided, of course, that some kind of Buy America stipulation is tacked on. If Republicans had been a little savvier, the Alabama condom industry wouldn't be withering and crumpling like, like -- well, the proper metaphor is escaping me right now. Let's move on.

How the World Works is not a fan of Buy American requirements, but it may be worth pointing out that the only reason Alabama's condom manufacturers have survived this far is because of the yeoman work done by Alabama's Congressional delegation over the years. As The New York Times' Celia Dugger reported two years ago, in a comprehensive examination of the history of Alabama condom manufacturing, Alabama politicians have done everything within their power to require USAID to source their cheap condoms domestically. Yes, my friends, Alabama condoms are real, honest-to-goodness, Southern-fried-pork. Don't let anybody tell you different.

The real question raised, but not answered, by the Kansas City Star's scoop, is what happened in recent years to break what Dugger called the "stranglehold of Alabama congressmen on the condom rules?" How did Republican senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby drop the ball? What explains their sudden impotence? And sorry Rush, but you can't blame Obama for this one. USAID's decision was in the works well before last year's election, according to the Star.

Finally, no matter what your position on free trade or family planning or prophylactic pork products might be, I hope everyone knows that the future of the American economy does not and should not rely on cheap bottom-of-the-barrel condom manufacturing. We should be investing in the future, in new, innovative condom designs that take advantage of American ingenuity and scientific prowess. I'll bet Obama is well aware: While politicians in the United States grandstand about the sourcing of cheap condoms and a handful of American jobs, Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs are headed up the value chain. Beware the condom gap!

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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