There doesn’t seem much we can do about the worsening economy but sit back and watch and hope that our leaders in Washington will come up with something; a few branches that we can grab a hold of to pull ourselves out of the economic quicksand that we’ve stumbled into.
Some citizens, however, aren’t waiting around for Congress or anyone else to come up with some ideas as to how to revive America’s moribund economy. Roger Simmermaker is one of four citizens behind the Buy American Project, a non-profit organization that educates both consumers and legislators in their belief that we can revitalize the American economy by renewing our manufacturing base and buying American made products.
Simmermaker is passionate in his belief that, as American citizens, we hold the key to our destiny. He was originally inspired by Ross Perot during his first presidential campaign in 1992. Perot’s message about the wisdom of Americans buying American made products made sense to Simmermaker.
A few years later, in 1994, Simmermaker went shopping and decided to make sure he only bought American made clothing. It wasn’t easy. He looked around for help and found there were no consumer guides available to inform people about how to buy all American made products. So, he researched the issue himself and wrote a book about what he learned; How Americans Can Buy American: The Power of Consumer Patriotism was published in 1996. The third edition came out in 2008.
Simmeraker works as an engineer for a living and dedicates his own time and energy to the Buy American Project. I spoke with him for Smoky Joe’s Clothing to find out why he believes we can re-energize the economy by buying American made products.
It’s a fact of life that the world is interconnected. Just how difficult is it to buy all American made products these days?
You have to know how to do it and that’s why the book is so important. It lists 20,000 different American made products and services in over 200 categories. However, there are certain instances where you’re just not going to be able to buy American made products. If you’re going to buy a cell phone or a cordless phone or alarm clock radio, things like that, you’re going to be out of luck.
But, there are some things we can do. We need to buy American in the categories where there are still American made products. Awareness is really the key and that’s what the book is all about, making people aware so that they can make choices that support the economy.
Is the loss of manufacturing in this country just part of a natural growth process that a nation goes through - a progression from an agricultural to a manufacturing to an information economy?
Well, I don’t think it’s a natural progression to say we need to shelve this and back off for something different. It just depends on what the rationale is. I think the national tragedy is for too long we thought we could get by on financial services and other types of service jobs and those would be the jobs of the future so we could afford to lose manufacturing jobs.
The truth is we had the financial meltdown on Wall Street which kind of put a dent into the thought that we could rely on the financial services industry to propel our prosperity in this country. Another industry that we thought we could help drive the economy is high technology. We currently have high technology product deficit with China so high-tech hasn’t really held up its end of the bargain either.
I think a lot of people are saying that maybe we should go back and look at manufacturing because every manufacturing job creates four other jobs and you just don’t have that kind of ripple effect in the service industry and a lot of people are coming around to that fact.
Why do you think it’s possible to bring manufacturing back to America?
The exodus to manufacturing jobs started basically in the early 1990’s. In the last decade we’ve lost over 30,000 to 40,000 manufacturing facilities. The good news is that manufacturing jobs are actually starting to come back for a couple of reasons.
In countries like China for instance, the exchange rate (they raised it a little in 2011), their wage rates are increasing, and the cost of shipping from China to America have doubled in the last couple of years. These kinds of things have worked together to make American domestic factories more competitive. So, it’s definitely a trend that’s happening.
Corporations save money by moving facilities to other countries. How do we convince a company like say, Whirlpool, to bring back manufacturing to this country where labor costs are still much higher?
Well, first of all there is probably both a certain amount of patriotism and greed in every corporation. It’s really impossible to tell what percentage of one over the other there is unless you’re on the inside of that corporation and can see how that affects the decisions that they make. But this is where awareness is really the key.
We really need to be careful about calling out companies and calling attention to their moving jobs overseas. I know Whirlpool is one of the more recent ones that moved facilities to Mexico, but they certainly weren’t the only ones. Electrolux also moved a factory to Mexico a few years ago. The fact remains that Whirlpool employs more Americans than any other company in the appliance industry and they have more plants in America and consequently more jobs on American soil.
American companies pay about twice as many taxes to the American treasury compared to foreign companies in similar industries so just using the money we’re already spending we can literally double the amount of tax revenue we send to the U.S. Treasury. That’s another reason why it’s so important to support American companies like Whirlpool even though, yes, they do have factories in other countries.
So, we have to choose our battles wisely and try to convince these companies to bring more of their production back to the United States.
Corporations also have an obligation to their shareholders to maximize profits and they seem to focus on short-term gains rather than the long-term effect their decisions have on the economy.
Again, it goes back to the percentage of how much patriotism and how much greed there is in any given company or corporation. Publicly traded companies are interested in doing what’s best for shareholders at least part of the way and that’s completely understandable to a point.
So, what we have to do is the best we can and approach companies and say, look, we are all in this together, we’re on the same team; we’re Americans and you’re an American company…
What are the kinds of things one should look for to tell if they are buying American made products?
Well that’s a great question because we need to do more than just buy American-made products we need to buy products made by American owned companies. That way we keep not only jobs but profits and tax revenues as well.
The truth is you will never know without doing the research to find out whether you’re really supporting an American company or not. For instance, Swiss Miss is an American company and Carnation is owned by the Swiss. You need to do the research to find out what’s what.
Foreign owned companies will list the address of their U.S. subsidiary on a package and this makes us think we are buying an American product when that may not be the case. For instance, the label on a bottle of Lysol will say its disinfectant is produced in America, but it won’t tell you that it’s a British owned company. The good news is I’ve done all the research. In my book, I’ve gathered thousands of these kinds of examples.
What’s you opinion of the “Buy American” legislation pending in Congress?
Yes, it’s called the Investment America Jobs Act of 2011, House Resolution 3533. Since it’s now 2012 it’s been around for a while, but it started when the Transportation Department had contracts for buses and they got faulty parts from China. It was a kind of light bulb moment when officials wondered why are we importing these parts from China when we can make them right here in the United States?
The idea of the legislation is to have 100% American made materials in our transportation and infrastructure projects that are manufactured in the U.S. There are currently 40 co-sponsors to that legislation in Congress.
So we need to let elected officials know why buying American is important to the nation so they can get behind the Buy American legislation and support American jobs in that manner.
On your website you mention that there is a”Buy American” Congressional Cacus.
A couple of years ago they started the Buy American Caucus and there’s only a handful of legislators on that. I found out that there are a lot of buy American friendly legislators out there that don’t know the Buy American Caucus exists.
Again, because there’s so many caucuses in Congress it’s hard to treat keep track of them all, but part of what we do is to convince legislators to join the Buy American Caucus. We feel that if we have a united caucus with a number of House members and Senators on board it will be a lot easier to get the Buy American legislation out of Congress and onto the president’s desk.
Is there anything else about the Buy American Project that you want to mention?
I know you started off your conversation with questions specifically about the apparel industry. There’s a lot of links to apparel companies on the Buy American Project website. One of them, the All American Clothing Company has a very interesting story. The owner, Lawson Nickol, worked for a Jeans manufacturer a few years ago that decided to move their production to Mexico. When Nickol found out about it he quit and started his own company and over the last several years it has really prospered.
That’s why I mention him so highly on my website because it’s a great story and great testament about Americans and how if we don’t like the way things are going we can go in a different direction and succeed. Nickol’s company produces their clothing in the United States and uses 100% certified American grown cotton and that’s how it should be.
Cardell Phillips is a blogger and writer who resides in Chicago. You can visit his blog at http://talesofthewindycity.wordpress.com