By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
It might be supremely patriotic to stop purchasing imports, but the consequences for US consumers and the economy would be devastating.
But what if we all were restricted to purchasing only those goods that were made in America?
Our homes would be stripped virtually bare of telephones, televisions, toasters and other electronics, and many of our favorite foods and toys would be gone, too. Say goodbye to your coffee or tea, and forget about slicing bananas into your breakfast cereal -- all three would become prohibitively expensive if we relied on only Hawaii to grow tropical crops.
We'd have to trash our beloved Apple products because the iPod, iPad and MacBook aren't made in the U.S. Gasoline would double or triple in price, given that we now import more than 60% of our oil. And you couldn't propose to your true love with a diamond ring: There are no working diamond mines in the U.S.
Moreover, a complete end to imports would actually hurt the U.S. economy, because consumers and domestic companies would lose access to cheap goods. Trade protections, whether through tariffs or quotas, cost the economy roughly $2 for every $1 in additional profit for domestic producers, said Mark Perry, an economics professor at the University of Michigan-Flint and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
"If we restricted trade to just the 50 states, what would happen immediately -- and would increase over time -- would be a huge reduction in our standard of living, because we wouldn't have access to the cheap goods we get from other countries," Perry said. "We also wouldn't have any export markets, so companies like Caterpillar and Microsoft would have a huge reduction in sales and workforce." (Microsoft is the publisher of MSN Money.)
So what do we make of heartfelt pleas to save U.S. manufacturing by buying American, or the many websites (see one here) that catalog U.S. sources for an array of products? Or the Buy American Act, which curbs government purchases of products that are made overseas?
Do such efforts actually hurt the country they're trying to help?
The argument for buying AmericanMarc Kruskol, 53, a publicist based in Palmdale, Calif., goes out of his way to purchase products that are made in the U.S. because of his concern over the decline in manufacturing employment.
"I truly believe that we could go a long way towards fixing the economy if we would just put people to work making things in this country that are made in other places," said Kruskol, who spends hours scouring made-in-America websites or visiting brick-and-mortar stores in search of U.S. products.
He recently spent $10 on a pair of salad tongs made in America, which he tracked down in a restaurant supply store, after rejecting 99-cent foreign-made tongs. And he was happy to spend $650 on a domestically produced barbecue grill rather than a $450 imported one, just to support his countrymen.
But financial experts say that it's best for America if you buy the cheapest product you can find without sacrificing quality. Their explanation rests on the concept of efficient manufacturing. An efficient producer creates the most valuable goods with the least possible expense, selling those items at lower prices than competitors who are less efficient. A country benefits when its manufacturers become more efficient.
When you spend more on an equivalent product simply because it's made in the U.S., you're wasting your money -- and supporting an inefficient manufacturer that, by rights, should become more efficient or go out of business. Moreover, the additional $9.01 or $200 that Kruskol had spent on an inefficient U.S. producer could have been spent on something else, helping the economy further. Or it could have stayed in his savings account and been funneled by his bank into the financial system, which in theory allocates capital to the most efficient producers.
"He gave effectively $9 to an inefficient producer to motivate them to keep producing inefficiently," said Ken Fisher, the founder and CEO of Fisher Investments in Woodside, Calif., and the author of "Debunkery." "I understand the well-intentioned view. Doing that would be terrible for America."
The most efficient producers are best-positioned to create more jobs and return profits to their investors, and to the government in the form of tax revenue. "We make the country better by allocating resources towards the ones that can use them best," Fisher said.
The complex manufacturing questionAt the heart of the issue are the interconnected global economy and the changes in the manufacturing sector.
There's no question that U.S. manufacturers employ far fewer people now -- about 11.7 million in April -- than when the sector peaked at 19.6 million workers in 1979. But the decline in jobs is largely due to technological advances that have reduced the number of workers needed to run factories, Perry and Fisher pointed out. The average worker today is responsible for $180,000 of manufacturing output, triple the inflation-adjusted $60,000 of 1972, Perry said.
Despite that increase in productivity, a March report by IHS Global Insight put China's manufacturing output ahead of the U.S. for the first time ever, at $2 trillion in 2010, compared with $1.95 trillion for the U.S. That's up from $1.69 trillion for China and $1.733 trillion for the U.S. in 2009, based on U.S. and Chinese government data.
But Perry argued that exchange-rate fluctuations and differences in data sources caused the IHS Global report to skew the comparison between the U.S. and China. Based on U.N. data for 2009, the most recent available, the United States' manufacturing output was 14% ahead of China's, he said.
Moreover, as manufacturing has declined as a share of the U.S. economy while the service sector has grown, most of the world has followed the same trend. The proportion has held steady in China.
"We've left the Machine Age, and we're in a new Information Age. It makes sense that manufacturing would be less important," Perry said, noting that as other countries have taken over clothing and other low-end manufacturing, the U.S. has become more competitive in producing pharmaceuticals, software, aerospace technology, industrial machinery and medical equipment. "We're still world leaders and at the cutting edge of those higher-skilled, higher-valued-added areas."
Not convinced yet? The other conundrum in trying to buy only U.S.-made products lies in what that really means.
Do you accept products that are assembled in America but contain components from all over the globe? For example, U.S. companies in February imported $58 billion worth of industrial supplies, such as petroleum and plastics, and $40 billion in capital goods, from computers to engines and laboratory equipment.
What about products that are assembled in China yet include parts from U.S. suppliers and were designed by American engineers? Every time you purchase such an item, the money will flow back to those American engineers and suppliers.
Cars.com's American-Made Index illustrates U.S. industries' complex trade relationships. The website ranks vehicles built and purchased in the U.S. based on sales, the origin of the cars' parts and whether assembly was in the U.S. The top two cars -- Toyota Camry and Honda Accord -- are produced by Japanese companies through their U.S. subsidiaries.
"On the surface, it seems like it might be plausible to have these 'made in the USA' campaigns," Perry said. "It all gets real tricky in a global economy with parts."
When buying American helpsThat's not to say you should ignore the origins of the goods you buy.
When comparing two products of equivalent price and quality, feel free to choose the U.S.-made one out of domestic pride. It may make sense to buy a U.S.-made product if the quality or safety is superior.
Alex Kaplan, 41, the owner of Celebrity Laser Spa in Los Angeles, recently bought a pair of ottomans online for $120, only to find them cracked and cheaply made. After returning the made-in-China set, he found a craftsman through Etsy who made similar ottomans for $160 but allowed customers to choose the fabrics.
"It's much more satisfying," said Kaplan, whose blog chronicles his attempts to find products made in the U.S. "The most important thing when it comes to buying American is being aware and asking yourself, 'Where is this made?'"