Patriotic Consumer’s Dilemma: Hard to Afford, Or Even Find Truly American-Made Products

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It takes a certain breed of patriotism to be willing to pay six times more for a product simply because it’s manufactured in the U.S.A., especially in today’s hard-times economy. But even if you are willing to pay a hefty premium to buy American, it’s often difficult to do so. “When was the last time you tried to buy a pair of socks made in the United States?” asks one economist. “You’re just not going to find any. They’re all now from Vietnam and China.”

The economist is UCLA’s Lee Ohanian, and he’s quoted in David Lazarus’s column in the LA Times about the two main reasons it’s so tough to buy American-made goods nowadays: 1) They’re often expensive; and 2) They’re often impossible to find.

Neither reason is stopping a non-profit group called TAP America from campaigning to get more Americans to buy local and support American manufacturing. TAP stands for Tolerance, Americanism, Patriotism, an acronym clearly indicating the group doesn’t want to give a hint of xenophobia or demonizing foreign interests and products. TAP, presumably, has another meaning—as in, the point of the movement is to tap into America’s strengths, creativity, and greatness.

TAP America has suggested that consumers agree to follow two of these pledges for a few weeks, with the promise that “your life will be better”:

• Pledge to give up at least 5 minutes of television, computer or video games to dedicate towards exercise.
• Pledge to practice at least one deliberate act of tolerance each week.
• Pledge to buy goods made in America to help stimulate our economy.

These seem like entirely reasonable pledges. Who could argue against exercise and tolerance? And buying locally made products is obviously good for our economy, but it’s also generally good for the environment. One complication is that, even when a product bears the label “Made in the U.S.A.,” it’s pretty likely that some of the components come from elsewhere. Cars are an obvious example, as Lazarus notes in his column:

It’s a global economy. Japanese cars are made in America. American cars are made in Mexico. Everything, it seems, is made in China. And parts for all goods can come from everywhere.

I guess having at least some of the creation, innovation, and manufacturing taking place in the U.S. is better than none at all. But what happens when American-made goods just can’t compete price-wise with those manufactured elsewhere? Lazarus’s story highlights an air purifier made in California that costs $600—and that’s similar to a unit made in China selling for $100 at Costco. What happens then, Lazarus notes, is that the hard-nosed, bottom-dollar consumer ethos typically takes over. Simply put:

We want the highest possible quality at the lowest possible price.

Ironic side note: A pair of posts at the Consumerist recently featured a reusable shopping bag with the words Buy Fresh Buy Local Northern Virginia and a cute baby bib bearing the phrase “Made in America.” You know where this is going, right? Both of these products, of course, were made in China.