“Buy American.” “Made in America.” In today’s interconnected world, those ideas might seem more like leftovers from the Cold War—not important maxims for America’s future. After all, young Americans are drinking Colombian coffee in the morning, skyping with friends in the U.K. at lunch, buying a made-in-China iPhone in the afternoon and drinking Italian wine in the evening. The idea of “Buying American,” or economic patriotism, might seem quaint, if not outright ridiculous.
Fact is, making things in America isn’t an obsolete idea. It’s how we built this country into the largest economy the world has ever seen. And it’s imperative for America’s future.
In 2011, the United States had a trade deficit of nearly $560 billion, fully $295 billion of which was a deficit in goods trade with China. These deficits are not just about dollars; they represent our ability as a nation to make the things we consume and the products and technology we need to defend ourselves. The iPhone may represent itself as proudly “designed in the USA,” but for how long? Eventually, the designers and engineers want to be close to the production lines—it’s simply more efficient. And if none of those production lines are in the United States, the good design and engineering jobs soon won’t be either. And for those of us concerned about job creation, giving up on manufacturing is simply silly—there’s not a one-to-one relationship between designers and those who physically make the product anyway.
When we rely on other countries to make the products we want—from food to clothing to computers—our own capabilities, and technical, innovative and productive capacity, decline. The United States did not become the wealthiest country in the world by accident. It happened because of deliberate policy choices, hard work and ambition. We can ensure there are good jobs, with decent pay and benefits, for Americans of all levels of education and ability, but we need that hard work and ambition—the right policy choices—and to avoid accepting that the current state of affairs is the best we can do.
We can each do our part to contribute to that better future, with better jobs and a better economy. And it’s not even that hard. Some of us are doing it already. Your neighbor who’s obsessed with organic foods, who only buys locally grown produce? She’s doing it. And your hipster friend, who refuses to shop at giant chain stores or eat at chain restaurants? He’s doing it. (In fact, as blogger Starre Vartan notes: As large, multinational corporations continue to move jobs overseas in order to take advantage of weak protections for workers and the environment, “hipster entrepreneurs might be the only ones employing Americans to make things 20 to 30 years from now.”) Or, as Will Oremus argued recently on The Hive, some bigger businesses like Whole Foods, Etsy and Kickstarter are helping to revive American manufacturing—which means job creation—as well.
For most younger Americans, our biggest expenses are food, housing and clothing (and, of course, education, if we’re paying tuition or paying off student loans). In all of these purchases, we can make choices that create jobs here in the United States, putting more money in Americans’ pockets that creates demand, which means businesses boom, more jobs are created and so on. It’s called the virtuous circle. And here’s how we can make it happen:
Housing: Housing is a classic “buy American” product. New housing, and maintenance and repairs on existing housing stock, create jobs for our neighbors.
Food: The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that every million dollars in sales through local markets supports 13 U.S. jobs." You can be part of that. When possible, consider shopping at farmers’ markets or local stores that keep the money in your community. Look for U.S.-raised meat and locally grown produce—you can often find American-grown food that is also organic, hormone-free, or has whatever other feature you are looking for.
Clothing: Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of clothing lines whose manufacturing facilities are right here in the United States. In fact, the Los Angeles Times says it’s a growing trend. So next time you need a T-shirt, a pair of jeans or just the right top, don’t overpay for fashion created under sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Instead, consider Youth Monument, Citizens of Humanity, Certified Jeans or any of dozens of other brands that sew their clothes here.
Buying American isn’t just an antiquated idea. Our future as a nation depends on reviving our economy to create good jobs that allow those who put in a fair day’s work to receive a fair day’s pay: to raise families and send the next generation to college. By supporting American manufacturers, we can all do our part to be America’s real job creators. For more ideas on reviving the American economy, go to www.aflcio.org/Issues/Jobs-and-Economy/Economy.