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Chad Selweski

Chad Selweski

The Almighty Dollar

May 5, 2017

President Donald Trump and Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow recently reached a bipartisan accord in a big way on a political issue. They didn’t appear on a stage together. A Trump event in Wisconsin and a Stabenow speech in West Michigan occurred days apart.

But the Republican president and the senator from the opposition party agreed on a stronger “Buy American” approach – Trump’s plan came through an executive order; Stabenow (and fellow Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters) proposed legislation. The purchasing rules apply only to federal government spending practices but the clear implication is that consumers should favor products that are “Made in the USA.”

This amounts to sloganeering of the warmest, fuzziest kind. Most Americans say they favor buying products made in the U.S. But that patriotism fades the moment a person grabs an item off the store shelf.

An Associated Press poll conducted in spring 2016 found that a substantial majority of Americans don’t want to buy American-made products if that means paying a few dollars more. The AP-GfK survey showed that nearly 75 percent of respondents said they prefer to buy U.S. goods but many will not pay a premium for such loyalty, especially if the differential is significant.

Asked to make a real-life choice between $50 pants made in a foreign country and an $85 pair of the same fabric and produced domestically, only 30 percent said they would choose the American item.

“Buy American” quaintly out of date

A Buy American mantra seems quaintly out of date in an era when the Internet has revolutionized comparison shopping. Price-conscious consumers tacitly give a vote of confidence to the overseas companies that pay low wages – even poverty wages – to their workers.

Shoppers say they want to buy products from worker-friendly companies that don’t send American jobs overseas. But there’s a catch.

The Pew Research Center, in a late 2015 poll, discovered that only 53 percent gave the politically correct answer to the question: Do you try to frequent companies that treat their workers well, even if it means paying a little more? A full 46 percent said they’re not willing to pay more money, as a show of loyalty to these corporations, and that their purchasing decisions are not influenced by a business that adheres to a hostile atmosphere for its workers.

In Michigan, the United Auto Workers has for decades tried to instill a Buy American mentality into car buyers, with little effect. From 1991-2015 Detroit’s Big Three have seen their market share fall from 70.5 percent to 45 percent. Over the past decade, purchasing a car has somehow become a partisan political exercise, even if it means shunning an engineering innovation like the Chevy Volt.

Trump’s April 18 event in Kenosha, Wisc., was held in front of a crowd at Snap-on Tools, a company with a mixed track record on outsourcing work. The president explained the executive order he was signing this way: “It’s America First, you better believe it. It’s time.” Maybe that time has come and gone.

It’s fashionable—and profitable—for corporations to wax patriotic about producing their wares in the good old U.S. of A. But some of these firms engage in scam tactics.

The most egregious example came in 2014 when a company based in Columbus, Ohio, named Made in the USA Brand LLC was hit with a Federal Trade Commission violation. The firm charged between $250 and $2,000 per year for red, white and blue seals — essentially a label — that certified a businesses’ products were American-made. Except the Made in the USA Brand never checked to determine if their customers actually adhered to their patriotic promise. Once certified, no customer had ever lost its “license.”

The FTC requires that a “Made in USA” label is backed up by evidence that all or nearly all of a product’s content derives from the 50 states, the District of Columbia or U.S. territories. Assembly in the United States is an obvious requirement.

What is an American-made product?

Those politicians eager to push for domestic content requirements within the realm of federal government purchases will find that globalization has made that standard a near-impossibility. 

For example, in the auto industry nearly a dozen Japanese and German cars assembled in the U.S. have American content of 70 percent or more. At the same time, BMWs built in South Carolina contain a variety of parts and more than two-thirds of the cars are not sold in America – they’re shipped overseas. Finding a vehicle that is 100 percent American-made is no longer possible.

At the same time, highly popular electronics in the U.S., whether built by Apple or Samsung or Sony, have their production and labor based overseas or in Mexico. When President-elect Trump said last year that he wanted to see Apple produce an American-made iPhone, he soon learned that the iPhone’s intricate contents are manufactured in dozens of countries.

In the 21st Century, manufacturers have supply chains that stretch around the globe. That is not going to change anytime soon.

In addition, retailers such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target or Sears make little effort to alert their customers about which products they sell support good-paying American jobs.

Trump famously used the bully pulpit in December to convince Carrier, a furnace and air conditioning manufacturer, to reverse its decision to close an Indianapolis plant and move it to Mexico. Yet, most components for furnaces and air conditioners assembled in the U.S. are manufactured overseas.

An American company that builds bikes and go-karts recently “reshored” its operations in Louisiana, but they still struggle to justify that transition. The Monster Moto CEO explained: “Consumers won’t give you a free pass just because you put ‘Made in USA’ on the box. You have to remain price competitive.”

What rules is the almighty dollar, not a patriotic allegiance among American workers.

That’s why Buy American is an empty phrase. It’s without substance in our American culture. It’s a saccharine sales pitch that ranks up there with “Make America Great Again.”

A freelance writer from Macomb County, Chad Selweski was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at chad.b.selweski@gmail.com.

May 4, 2017 · Filed under Chad Selweski



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