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