buy American

Nov 3, 2008
I have a lot of tools. I have more than a normal person should, I think.  My collection of tools is based on one part frugality (I can save money by fixing it myself!), one part wastefulness (I NEED a specialty picture-hanging hook that looks JUST so!) and one part optimism (I am going to be Mr. Family-Man-Fixer-Upper!)  Nonetheless, most of my tools have one unifying characteristic – they were made cheaply overseas.

Go to the store sometime (particularly if you have a KMart/Wal-Mart/Target nearby) and look at where stuff is made. It’s all made somewhere else.  Same thing goes for a Home Depot or a Lowe’s – half of my tools are made in Malaysia or China.  Maybe more than half.  Almost all, to be honest.

But I have a few tools that are different. My grandparents moved from their house into an apartment when it became difficult for my grandfather to deal with basic maintenance of the yard and exterior.  He kept a few basic tools, but for the most part he gave away the tools he had accumulated over his life.  I have a huge pile of them, and they are amazing:

  • A hammer that feels like it was owned by John Henry
  • Screwdrivers that are old and dark with age but still have unblemished heads that easily turn the worst, worn-down screws
  • A Yankee drill that after decades of heavy use still punches through metal with nothing more than manual force – no electricity or batteries.
  • A saw that cuts cleanly and straight despite being older than I am.
  • And on and on.

All of these tools have words stamped on them which look almost alien. “Made in New Hampshire.”  “Made in New York.”  “American-made.”  I even have one that says “Made in England.”  Seeing a tool that was made of American steel, cast in an American plant and assembled without a touch of plastic seems otherworldly.  I can always tell these tools because they have the feel of weight, and certainty and permanence.

I compare that of course to the cheap plastic junk you can buy today. I had a cheap hammer (I NEEDED a special small hammer) whose head flew off while I was hammering.  I have gone through dozens of inexpensive small screwdrivers, always returning to the solid, heavy old ones when the new ones have stripped another screw’s head.  The difference is clear, and I am sure that when I am too old to do work around the house I will also pass down those tools to my children and keep a few inexpensive “modern” screwdrivers around my old-age home to fix  a loose screw once in a while.

The easy path is to berate cheap junk from China or bemoan the death of American industriousness or sneer at unions. China is guiltless, in this case.  Americans have demonstrated for a generation now that they would rather buy a new hammer for $9.99 every few years than buy one that would last a lifetime for $29.99.  China simply meets that need.  American industry has died for the same reason.  I shop at Home Depot.  I am as guilty as anyone of buying a cheap tool instead of buying a better one that might last longer.

But given today’s economic situation, “Buy American” is no longer a convenient political slogan or a union-driven message. It doesn’t have to mean “Hate overseas manufacturers” or “Save American jobs.”  But what it does have to mean is that soon “Buy American” will be a call to rally troops at the inner fortress.  You can read every day about the exciting new jobs that we will soon have – high-tech jobs in green technology, for example.  Forty years ago, give or take a few years, this statement would not have made most people blink:

“A man who works at a skilled job in a manufacturing facility can provide a decent living for his family.  His wife can stay home if she wishes while the children are small.  The husband will be able to send his children to college.  They will be able to buy a home.  They will have enough saved to retire at the end of his career at the facility, and still be able to pass some on to their children.”

Making that statement in 2009 seems ludicrous. When did it all change?  When “Buy American” faded into memory.  Trade barriers and sloganeering won’t ever bring us back to where we were, but Americans have to face an ugly fact:  Wal-Mart and the federal government are our two biggest employers and our future is that of a service economy – service workers serving other service workers.  “Knowledge” jobs can be exported even more easily than manufacturing jobs, whose export was (and still is) at least fought by what remains of America’s unions.  No protestors will march outside the gates when Megacorp outsources the billing department to Armenia.  No union will fight sending Tommy Accountant’s job to India.  If you work at a job where most of your day is spent around a computer, you have to realize this:  you have no skill – none – that cannot be duplicated and performed over the internet.  I can be replaced, and as companies get smarter, I will be.  Everything I do could be done far more cheaply by someone else over the Internet.   And I can’t blame companies under short-term pressure to deliver profits to shareholders if departments are outsourced – and I don’t blame India or China or the Phillipines for being there to pick up the work.

I see no reason not to expect Dubai, or Shanghai, or even some yet-up-and-coming place like Yerevan or Almaty to the next great financial center. Why should New York be special in the financial world?  Lunch, mostly.  People still like to go out for a New York-y lunch.  But almost every person I know in New York works at a knowledge job.  I could work remotely on a project overseas (and have) and I have done NOTHING in the last ten years that I could not have done if I were living in Kansas City, or Houston, or Vancouver.  In the last five, I have done nothing I could not have done if I were living in Moscow, Russia, or Moscow, Tennessee.

I pick up those old tools and wonder if the men (and women) who made them would recognize America today, an America that looks a little bit too much like the passengers in “Wall-E” for comfort. I know we had problems a couple of generations ago – women and minorities did not have the opportunities they do today – but a hammer made in New Hampshire meant jobs for our communities and a good tool that lasted for generations.  Those people work at Wal-Mart today, most likely.  Maybe that’s OK – maybe America is the first real “post-work” society, content to work at Wal-Mart so they can go buy cheap stuff at Wal-Mart on the weekends.  I hope not. I hope people will get angry when Citigroup or AIG or Morgan Stanley outsource another department overseas using taxpayer money to do it.  I hope people will get angry when banks are bailed out and car companies are left to die.   Whether or not you feel the car companies need to be saved, they certainly deserve to be bailed out as much as the banks did.  It may be almost too late to buy American, but it’s important to remember that this economic avalanche will not be stopped through anything other than action at the personal level, and that action has to start with making a choice every time you buy something.

photo credit: kevindooley

20 Replies to “buy American”

  1. Funny you should mention this now…I heard this for the very first time (yes…ever!) over the weekend. It was the photographer from our wedding. We were looking at different albums and we agreed on which one we wanted. She said, “And plus, it's also good that they're an American company.”

    That, along with all the buzz going around that people are going to start saving more money and being more frugal, made me feel like I was in the Fifties or something.

    Talk about time machine…

  2. My husband is very particular about the tool he purchases. Used to, I wouldn't care one way or another. It made no sense to me to be so particular. But there is something about certain brands that he just does not like, and other brands that he loves. He would probably love this: “A hammer that feels like it was owned by John Henry.” 🙂

  3. Seems like these days the ideas come from US and the product comes from elsewhere. Apple, Dell, created here but made overseas.

    What's interesting is the successful car factories in the US are the foreign ones nowadays.

    Not so sure what the solution is though except that the country has to promote new ideas and technology.

  4. I am an owner of a small machine shop. I have worked in manufacturing since I was 16 (except for my 3 years in the Army) and self employed for the last 28 years. I has provided me and my family a very GOOD living. Not rich by any means, but my wife has never had to work, vacations every year, new cars every 2 years, a home in a nice area, plus the vacation home, and the boat.

    We are totally debt free-no mortage on anything including the shop. So what's the problem? Each year for the past 5 years things have been going down hill. Customers going belly up, shipping jobs to China, and American's wanting “cheap” products, and stock-holders demanding high dividends. Add the taxes, high energy costs, shortage of skilled workers, you get the idea.

    If you earn your living in American manufacturing you damn sure should own the product you build.

    I'm sorry about the rant, and long post but I love America, and I love what I do, and I love to proudly say my products are “Made in America” To bad I have to live long enough to see it die.

  5. Just cause a products American, doesn't mean it's better quality. For example, many people won't but American made cars because they feel they are inferior. I'm not saying this is true in all circumstances, but in some. With tools may be a different story. Bottom line though is people are looking out for their wallets. Unless they are looking for a specialized product, the average person is fine with the cheaper one to use on a every now and then basis.

    1. @Craig: true, but do you mean by “American made cars” Ford, GM, or Chrysler? The last Ford I owned had “made in Mexico” stamped all over it. My Honda was built in Ohio, and it's the highest customer satisfaction vehicle in its class except for Toyota. I'd argue it's not the ownership that counts, but where it's made and who does the building.

      But you're right, people do look out for their wallets, but foolishly in many cases. As many, many blogs point out, “cheap” is a lot different from “frugal!”

  6. This is a great essay. I too prefer products at the “last ___ you'll ever buy” level of quality for various reasons. Unfortunately very few other people seem to agree these days, which makes these kinds of products very hard to find.

    If you do enough digging, you can find companies making things the old fashioned way. Most of the ones that have survived, have done so by moving upmarket into the realm of luxury goods marketed to the wealthy. Examples: Le Creuset pots, Allen Edmonds shoes, audiophile grade stereos, diesel Mercedes-Benz sedans. This stuff will last. The problem for someone like me is that you pay two premiums, one for the durability, and a second for the exclusive luxury brand status.

    There are a very few mass-market, high quality manufacturers left. In your specific case of tools, Craftsman hand tools (not power tools) sold at Sears are built to last forever, and they back that up with a guarantee. Arguably Toyota and Honda fit this niche as well.

  7. My mom always comments that until the cheap-labor countries have things like OSHA or minimum wage, the US can't really compete. This annoys her (also, that my dad has lost two jobs in the last 8 years due to being shipped overseas; he's worked temp jobs since 2001 because of lack of ability to find a “real” job).

    1. @thisisbeth: That's exactly what grinds at me: if the US puts tarrifs or taxes on imports we're accused of being anti-free-trade, when the real issue is that other countries are anti-living-wage and workplace safety. The cost of guaranteeing a living wage and a safe workplace is an uncompetitive American workplace, isn't it? Sad. If we don't make our trading partners comply to the same standards we have, we have no standards.

  8. I truly hate cheap quality items. Plastic hammers, knives that are blunt after a couple of uses, super thin steel on pots when I need something stronger to handle the heat.. it drives me mad, but no one makes that kind of quality any longer because we're not willing to pay for it as consumers.

    We're too caught up in saving money and being frugal that a $50 hammer vs. a $15 hammer is a simple choice because of the $35 difference.

    I'd rather pay the $50 hammer once, but I just can't find that kind of steel or quality any longer.

    Fabulously Broke in the City

    Just a girl trying to find a balance between being a Shopaholic and a Saver.

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  10. I'd be happy to buy American, but more often than not, the extra I pay for American does not get me a better product. American vehicles are a case in point. Why should I support an industry that refuses to build a quality product that is fuel efficient?

  11. Excellent and somewhat heartfelt post. I have been yelling about this for years and nobody listens; consumers won't pay a premium in most cases and producers increasingly only care about appeasing shareholders.

    I do buy American, when I can, e.g. All-Clad cookware that will last the rest of my life (but check the packaging; even All-Clad is making stuff in China now), the US-made old tools in my old rusty US-made toolbox that I've had since I was about 16, and so on. But it's become so hard to find US-made products that I've largely given up, though I always try and find an alternative to Chinese product to the point where I will go without. This is nothing to do with Chinese workers and everything to do with their corrupt government and total disregard for the value of human life, not to mention the environmental devastation they've wrought. It's also a message to vendors, but they won't listen.

  12. I'm so glad I found your blog. The fact that you take pride in buying American not for the novelty, but as a way to bring our economy around is inspiring.

    It's mind boggling that this idea isn't something that people do on there own anymore. Maybe we need to use a widespread advertising campaign like back in WWII to get the message out. There is a related post on this blog if you want to check it out.

    Thanks for the post man!

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