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Let’s Be Smart About Our ‘Buy American’ Strategy

 

There is no reasonable debate – as far as I’m concerned – against this country getting its ‘Buy American’ game on.

Our manufacturing base has been decimated by this 20+ year race to the bottom, eroded to the point of desperation. There are several right-thinking organizations and individuals dedicated to reversing this trend to bring sanity – along with high-paying jobs & national security – back into our country’s economic equation. And I believe that they are absolutely right. But I’d like to suggest that – in the realities of a global economy – we might want to think before approaching ‘Buy American’ as an ‘all or nothing’ goal.

In times like these, our instincts are to react quickly. We see the emergency for what it is – some would say HAVE SEEN it for some time – and understand that time is precious. We want the pendulum to swing back to the other side. Just do it. Make it stop.

But the laws of unintended consequences have a way of cutting off noses to spite faces. And I think we’d do well to consider these points before we decide that ‘Made In The USA’ is the only acceptable option, for every case.

  • When Lives Are At Stake – As an example, imagine someone you love dearly is serving in the military. You want them to have the best, right? The best equipment, the best gear, everything top-of-the-line. But I’m not just talking about the equipment itself. What if the best, most accurate machinery to build that equipment or gear isn’t American? What if it’s German, or Japanese or from somewhere other than the US? Is it acceptable to you for those people to have to settle for ‘less-than-optimum,’ created with even somewhat less than the best technology available? If so, please explain that position to me so I can understand it – because it’s not OK with me. (If you don’t have to imagine how that feels because they – or you – are serving, then God bless you. And them.) Now roll this analogy out to healthcare, the planes that fly your family across the country, or the vehicles our children drive. Sometimes, it makes sense to pick the best solution regardless of its source.
  • We Need More Of Our Manufacturing Chops Back –  We have – or at least we USED to have – strong, rigid apprenticeship and journeyman programs in our factories and plants. They were there to arm workers with skills that helped make them consistent, thorough, and capable of executable intuition and innovation in manufacturing. In medicine, our providers must undergo lengthy, rigorous academic programs and internships for the same purposes in healthcare. Our country has been neutered of our manufacturing chops, and we need to get those programs back up to a stronger posture. This point is as much an argument for a reasonable cadence of reshoring complex manufacturing back to the US. Ask US manufacturers today and you will hear one of the top challenges they face is finding qualified, skilled people to handle the workload we have now. This balance must be considered before we force back that which we may not be able to fulfill. And as long as there aren’t enough workers or capacity, reshoring will continue to be more a trickle and less a trend.
  • ‘Made In America’ Needs A Clear Definition –  Take a look at this widget from ABC News that provides the percentage of US-made parts or assemblies found in each car sold in the US. (Hint: you won’t find one that’s 100% made in America.) And just try finding an American-made minivan. While the Federal Trade Commission is tasked with label and claim accuracy regarding product source of origin, how effective have they been? As it turns out, they don’t have to be. The only products required to display US content are automobiles and textile, wool, and fur products. That leaves a remarkable list of products and services that may appear to be sourced from the US but might not be at all. My point is this – what good are the efforts of the right-thinking, good people mentioned above, if their (and our) efforts go to support products we only THINK may be made here. Or somewhere else? The fact is, combined sources exist in many products, assembled from various supply chains. To approach a ‘Buy American’ strategy without addressing accuracy in labeling and tracking, we may be whistling in the dark while wasting those admirable efforts.
  • Consumption As A Matter Of Choice – There are people in this country that are legitimately hurting right now. Many things that you and I take for granted are seen by others as luxuries. Shouldn’t there continue to be low-cost choices for these families to better afford more to survive with some dignity? Shutting down whole supply chains to force consumption of only US-made products could put further hardship on those that just don’t need it right now. Can this be done? Yes. Should it? Perhaps. But should draconian measures be enacted that force that to happen ‘overnight?’ I don’t think so. Let us move more production back to the US – but let’s be smarter and more compassionate about it than the folks that outsourced our manufacturing base were in the first place.
  • Remember The Entrepreneurs – I know of several examples of people that have had an idea and a passion for a new product – art, jewelry, useful products with unique qualities – but lacked the capital to match their enthusiasms.  Building prototypes, developing working models, and the design alterations those processes require can get real expensive, real quick.  I’ve seen access to low-cost manufacturing in many of the countries we sometimes vilify offer these creative folks the chance to bring their dreams to life and generate wealth. We ought not to shut off those channels for budding, motivated entrepreneurs without carefully considering the ramifications.

This debate about what ‘Buy American’ means should center on quality – quality of products, quality of our economy, and quality of life.

The San Francisco Bay Bridge ‘learning moment’ is a recent, egregious example of how chasing low-costs to fund domestic projects or offer inexpensive products or services can bite us. The price of everything, and the value of nothing … let’s not go overboard in the opposite direction. Because neither is the sustainable solution. It’s about balance. We haven’t had much of that for a while, and it’s time we tried that for a change.

Of course, let’s support our local businesses. Let’s support our US-based companies that create jobs and wealth and value in our own economy now.

But let’s also remember that there have been ‘Buy American’ laws and provisions enacted in this country for years, going back to 1933. (Now THAT was a good year, huh?) And let’s remember that even with them on the books, we’re still where we are today. Even in San Francisco.

Let’s legitimately consider consumer markets, domestic infrastructure & public works projects, and manufacturing closest to consumption as the tenets for ‘Buy American’ strategies.

Let’s continue to fight for and support the premise that we are the world’s manufacturing leader, and can continue to be.

Let’s leverage ‘Buy American’ to regain the ability to out-produce, out-innovate, and out-perform any and every challenger in the global manufacturing economy.

Let’s not kick the can down the road – we must consider our abilities to perform within the context of a comprehensive industrial policy for the US that includes fair trade reform and the gumption to enforce it.

Let’s remember that ‘Made In The USA’ was once synonymous with ‘the absolute best quality,’ and can be again.

But let’s not sacrifice the best available technologies now, when only the best will do.

AJ Sweatt
Website
6 Comments
  1. There is also one more component to this and I am afraid it won’t be popular.

    The folks that are currently making some of these products that we are buying are busy lifting themselves out of poverty as well. As an American and consequently one of the wealthiest people on the face of this planet, I would argue that we have an obligation to spread the wealth, somehow. This is one means by which to do just that.

  2. AJ, this piece has a lot of merit and nuance that usually isn’t captured. The good news is that Buy America laws DO have exceptions for the issues you raise. The bad news is that Buy America laws, in many ways, are still not strong enough. Why should private US firms have to compete against state-owned Chinese firms that don’t have a profit motive? That’s not the free market. We think it is common sense to re-invest tax dollars in America. No other country with a manufacturing capacity has such an open procurement system. We are one of the only countries foolish enough to subsidize the jobs of our global competitors with tax dollars!

  3. Alan Uke, author of “Buying America Back” has a plan where we by American AND from equal trade partners but we need a better label.
    Uke wants country-of-origin labels to be redesigned so every consumer good sold in the U.S. shows where its components originate, what the U.S. trade balance is with the countries indicated, and the location of the manufacturer’s headquarters. The new labels should be as consistent and as easily interpreted as the Food and Drug Administration’s nutrition labels on food packaging. Here are some links to learn more about what he’s doing:

    http://www.buyingamericaback.org/
    http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/UkeA
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michele-nashhoff/changing-to-wtos-made-in-_b_1536758.html

  4. AJ, I think ‘The Entrepreneurs’ are a big key. As a product engineer for a manufacturing start-up, I hope we can make it through the rough beginning and see our dream come true too. Its a shame so many good ideas get squashed because it’s so hard to get started. That’s really the tough part; the costs to get started. If we can bring that down or at the very least keep it from going UP, small business can save the day.

    • Pete! So good to hear from you! You’re exactly right – those costs cause companies like yours to seek the paths of least resistance. It’s organic, and something we ought not to stifle without serious thought.

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