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Keep on rockin’ in the free world: Gibson guitars are now the center of a conservative debate

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When guitars are outlawed, only outlaws will have guitars. (James Hetfield said that.) Actually, the legality of stringed instruments isn't the issue here — instead, the focus is on the raw materials they're made of. Gibson, the guitar maker responsible for iconic instruments seen in the hands of Jimmy Page, Angus Young, and B.B. King (among thousands of others), is at the center of a political debate over their use of imported woods.

Federal agents recently seized 10,000 fingerboards, 700 guitar necks and 80 guitars from the Gibson factory in Tennessee. The government suspected the wood used to make the seized objects was illegally imported from India. However, what should have been a rote issue of import/export red tape has blow up into a larger debate about the role of government regulation in American enterprise, with House Speaker John A. Boehner and professional bag of hot wind Rush Limbaugh leading the charge.

"Gibson is a well-respected American company that employs thousands of people," Boehner said. "The company's costs as a result of the raid? An estimated $2-3 million. Why? Because Gibson bought wood overseas to make guitars in America. Seriously."

Ironically, the agents were targeting wood illegally imported under the Lacey Act, first passed in 1900 and amended in 2008 with broad bipartisan and Bush administration support. Seriously. The Act originated to restrict contraband trade in wildlife and was updated to include illegally logged wood products.

The Lacey Act has actually received broad support from the domestic forest products industry — illegally harvested wood from developing countries is cheaper, which undercuts (no pun intended) American companies. Additionally, studies have since shown a reduction in illegal logging worldwide since the act was passed.

Finally, many people are calling this an unnecessarily politicized issue: Bob Taylor, president of Taylor Guitars, wrote of the Lacey Act that "The cost isn't so much for us. It's not an unbearable added burden." This is in stark contrast to Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, who appeared in a corporate figure accusing the federal government of "bullying and harassing" Gibson.

"If there is excess in this particular case, then look  at this case," said Mark Rey, a Bush administration official who backed the Act. "But to say that the Lacey Act is an example of an extreme, unworkable regulatory framework is flatly preposterous."

You mean conservatives are blowing something way out of proportion? Shocking. And besides, the act is designed to work against companies getting cheaper material from overseas, thus hurting American companies — which sounds remarkably similar to the outsourcing issue so frequently crowed about by the right. 

It seems to me that, with public opinion of the Tea Party at an all-time low, they're now grasping for causes that don't make them look like out-of-touch, logjamming obstacles to real reform: "Hey, we're cool! We protect guitars! We're hip!" Besides, everybody knows Strats are way more American, if only by virtue of the fact that Jimi Hendrix played his version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" on one.*

*I do not actually believe that. But I do think it's fun to argue over which one is more 'Merican. (The answer is actually Gretsch, because of Chet Atkins.)