International trade is an economic and political issue, but little is said about products the U.S. imports. Most promoters of free trade talk about exports in detail and ignore import. Critics of trade talk in generalities about imports, but seldom mentioned which specific items they believe U.S. consumers should not be allowed to buy from sources outside the U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the total value of merchandise imports in calendar year 2007 was $1.954 trillion. The largest category was petroleum and mineral fuels at $361 billion, 18.5 percent of total merchandise imports. The next three categories are manufactured products which have received attention recently: general machinery at $250 billion, electrical equipment at $249 billion and vehicles at $214 billion, for a total of $713 billion, 36.5 percent of total merchandise imports. Apparel items are also high on the list at $75.6 billion, 3.9 percent of imports, as are chemicals at $59.5 billion, 3.0 percent, and iron and steel and products at $57.2 billion, 2.9 percent of the total. Pharmaceuticals imports have been an issue lately and were $48.9 billion, 2.5 percent of the total. These eight categories account for $1.315 trillion of imports, 67.3 percent of the total.

A few other categories that make the news include precious stones and pearls at $47.6 billion, toys, games and sports equipment at $31.1 billion and footwear at $19.4 billion. Works of art, collectors’ pieces and antiques totaled $8.7 billion.

For the first time in 2007 China was the largest exporter to the U.S. at $322 billion, 16.5 percent of U.S. merchandise imports, just edging out Canada at $313 billion, 16.0 percent. Mexico was number three at $211 billion, 10.8 percent, followed by Japan at $146 billion, 7.4 percent, Germany at $94 billion, 4.8 percent, the United Kingdom at $57 billion, 2.9 percent, and South Korea at $48 billion, 2.4 percent. Venezuela was number nine at $40.0 billion and Saudi Arabia number 11 at $36 billion.

Major categories for imports from China in 2007 include electrical equipment at $76.7 billion, general machinery at $64.0 billion, toys, games and sports equipment at $26.1 billion and apparel at $24.0 billion. Pharmaceuticals were only $401 million. Canada’s largest exports to the U.S. were petroleum and products at $78.7 billion, vehicles and parts at $60.4 billion and general machinery at $22.0 billion. From Mexico electrical equipment was highest at $54.9 billion, followed by petroleum and products at $34.1 billion and vehicles at $33.9 billion. Vehicles led imports from Japan at $56.4 billion followed by general machinery at $30.1 billion and electrical equipment at $21.8 billion. Vehicles also led in imports from Germany at $22.4 billion followed by general machinery at $20.8 billion and pharmaceuticals at $8.0 billion. South Korea looks like a developed country with electrical equipment exports to the U.S. at $13.4 billion, vehicles at $10.6 and general machinery at $7.8 billion. Almost all of the imports from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia were petroleum and products.

According to USDA the U.S. imported $70.0 billion of agricultural products during fiscal year 2007, October 1, 2006 through September 30, 2007, and is expected to import $76.5 billion this year. Imports were led by fruits and juices at $8.52 billion, beer and wine at $8.23 billion and vegetables at $7.28 billion. These three categories accounted for 34.1 percent of agricultural imports. Imported products not produced in the U.S. in significant volumes included coffee beans and products at $3.65 billion, cocoa and chocolate at $2.59 billion, essential oils at $2.48 billion and natural rubber at $2.09 billion. These four categories accounted for 15.4 percent of imports. Beef and veal imports were $3.39 billion and pork imports were $1.21 billion.

The EU-27 is the biggest source of agricultural imports for the U.S. at $15.0 billion, 21.4 percent of imports, closely followed by Canada at $14.7 billion, 21.0 percent of imports. Mexico was third at $9.9 billion and 14.2 percent. The next largest were China at $2.8 billion, 4.0 percent, Australia at $2.6 billion, 3.7 percent, and Brazil at $2.5 billion, 3.6 percent. The EU’s biggest items were beer and wine at $4.8 billion and essential oils at $2.0 billion. Canada led with snack foods at $2.3 billion, live animals at $1.9 billion and red meats at $1.8 billion. Mexican imports to the U.S. were led by fresh vegetables at $2.7 billion, wine and beer at $1.7 billion and fresh fruits at $1.5 billion. China’s biggest category was processed fruits and vegetables at $706 million.

The U.S. generally imports goods from other developed countries. The major exceptions are petroleum where the U.S. imports from developing countries, Mexico which supplies 14 percent of agricultural imports and some industrial products and China which is a major supplier of machinery. Most of the other imported products can and are produced in most developed countries. U.S. consumers have chosen to access global supply chains, which is most evident in vehicles which are among the top three categories of imports from Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany and South Korea. Manufacturers have taken notice of U.S. consumers’ choices in the supply chain and have spread out vehicle production, including in the U.S. The same is true for consumer electronics.

Bashing imports will continue to be a popular political activity this year, but it puts politicians at odds with U.S. consumers and voters who continue to access international supply chains for consumer goods to achieve the quality and affordability they seek. At some point consumers need to make their voices heard in the political marketplace if they are to continue to have the benefits of an open economic marketplace.