'Made in America' just might save America
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A man who played a shiftless government worker for years, Cliff Clavin might seem an odd choice to lead America's manufacturing revival.
But John Ratzenberger is far more impassioned than the mild mailman he created and played at the far end of the bar in "Cheers'' for more than a decade. The actor's roots are in a Connecticut factory town, and he hasn't forgotten where he comes from.
At what was billed as a town meeting but played more like a pep rally in the Strip District last week, Mr. Ratzenberger told how, when he was growing up, his father drove a truck. He also tinkered around the house and under the hood of the family car, as all the men of Bridgeport, Conn., did in the 1950s and '60s.
At the dinner table, his father and uncles would talk about "tolerances of 1/10,000 of an inch,'' and he'd crack on them for thinking Western civilization rested on such questions.
Now Mr. Ratzenberger thinks it just might.
Moderating the Alliance for American Manufacturing at the Heinz History Center, Mr. Ratzenberger told the overflow crowd, some of whom had arrived on buses from as far as Johnstown, that it was up to them to "Keep It Made in America.'' The numbers that flashed on the screen were staggering if not surprising.
Pennsylvania has lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001, and this alliance of the United Steelworkers and their employers claims more than a third of those lost jobs are due to unfair trade from China.
More than 100 million Chinese are toiling in factories, and the rule there is 12-hour workdays and dangerous conditions not seen in this country for generations. The alliance says America could compete nonetheless if international trade laws were enforced.
Whether or not you buy that argument, it might help if we bought more stuff made here. America's trade deficit is now $2 billion a day. You'll see why if you shop tomorrow. The biggest shopping day of the year will not stray from our standard economic model:
Americans drive foreign cars powered with imported gasoline to malls where they buy clothes and toys made in Asia. The foreign countries use our dollars to buy our bonds so we can finance our way of life plus the war for Iraq.
It's not jingoistic to suggest that's not a model built to last. Rising mortgage foreclosures, a sinking dollar and public debt of $9 trillion -- that's trillion with a "t" -- should be at least as scary as lead paint on Chinese toys.
So I'm suggesting more of us make it a point to buy at least some American-made stuff this year. (Those who find a way to buy only American-made stuff in this environment should get commendations from the U.S. secretaries of commerce and labor.)
Think of it as holiday gift-giving done twice: The first will be the gift itself, the second will be a gift to the manufacturer and its employees, who might rest a bit easier if this season goes well.
How do you know if an item is American-made? Check the label. Ask the merchant. If the merchant looks baffled, you might move on to the next store.
I'd recommend some American products but I'm afraid (or am at least hoping) that I'd miss some if I tried to list them here. When I called the alliance for a recommended shopping list, a spokesman offered some Web sites that include:
Even these sites generally come with caveats. There are no guarantees every product is strictly American.
That's OK. I'm also sure there are political beliefs on some of these sites that would curl my hair. I'm not trying to get all red, white and blue in the face here. The sources of the clothes and toys in our house aren't likely different than the ones in yours.
For me, though, buying homegrown stuff will be something I think about this Christmas. I'll think about the big scary numbers next year, when all of us are wondering who should represent us in the White House or in Congress.
It would be a crazy thing if, after all this time, America just bargain-hunted its way into oblivion.
First Published November 22, 2007 12:00 am