Thursday, March 21, 2013

DisMade in America: Where DOES this stuff come from?

The mission seemed simple enough. Walk into an auto parts store and buy a spark plug "Made in America."

I realize a lot of stuff is no longer even manufactured in this country and American workers are paying that price with a double whammy of lost wages and crappy products. I try to do my part to support the American worker every time I walk into a store or shop online. Pretty sad when the highlight of my day is pulling on my New Balance socks with "Made in America" proudly stamped inside their collars.
In a Federal Register notice announcing amendments to this provision, the Customs Service indicated that, where a product has a foreign origin, any references to the United States made in the context of a statement relating to any aspect of the production or distribution of the product (e.g., "Designed in USA," "Made for XYZ Corporation, California, U.S.A.," or "Distributed by ABC, Inc., Colorado, USA") would be considered misleading to the ultimate purchaser and would require foreign country-of-origin marking in accordance with the above provision. 
Finding goods crafted by and for fellow countrymen has become a tough slog and is something of a daily pilgrimage. Corporations work their label designers overtime trying to hide the fact that goods are produced by foreign labor. Hell, now some companies are hiding the foreigness of their stuff by leaving off the manufacturing info and subbing in the company's distribution addresses. This, of course, gives me the perfect opportunity to stand in front of their high-priced, meticulously-groomed displays while calling their handy 800 number on that label to ask a surprised call center attendant where it is produced. I do use my very best command voice so their potential customers hear the question. It's always gratifying to see how many people start picking up packages and checking that for themselves upon hearing the question.

So, back at our local auto parts store where I've just asked for a spark plug made domestically and have gotten that "Where'd you park your spaceship" look.

The clerk assured me he had several US-made plugs and rattled off a few brand names. He then checked my list of replacement parts then scurried back to the stockroom, returning in minutes with what he swore was a bona fide American part. He rang it up, I paid then went to the car. I was struck with a sudden pang of mistrust, so I pulled the package out of the bag and hunted in the small print and found: "Made in Mexico." When I went back to discuss, it turned out none of the acceptable spark plugs were made in the U.S.

The thrust of this story isn't just that this country's manufacturing base, with its attendant living wage, has virtually vanished. No, it's rather that through a sleazy and deliberate campaign of propaganda and obfuscation, America's corporate class convinced the country's middle class that Cheap is Good. And did it in a way that proved a self-fulfilling prophecy, as wage earners watched good-paying jobs that made stuff for Americans sail overseas and started bringing home paychecks that could only support the purchase of cheap goods.

Now the next step in the game is to fog the field such that even when on alert it's tough to determine the truth of the matter. Producers boast on web pages how their products are made in the US when, far too often, a single line is actually housed domestically with the bulk of production taking place overseas. But my auto store adventure taught me an even more perverse lesson. People who deal with a product on a daily basis are so detached from the problem that they can't even identify an American-made product ... even when specifically asked to do so.

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