Thirty years ago owners and managers of domestic corporations used to pride themselves on selling products "Made in America" by displaying American flags and donning baseball caps with USA emblazoned on the front. As the world's premier manufacturer we were not bashful in boasting about our status. A few may still hold on to that tradition, but recent news articles in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette seem to suggest a reversal in storyline.
As an example, we learned this past week that the catfish industry which was born in the south with the mass production of a fish indigenous to this part of the country was downsizing due to increasing competition from foreign sources. No longer are catfish farmers able to make a living raising and selling that beloved product that we here in Arkansas have always recognized as being a culinary delight. When discovered by the rest of humanity, domestically raised catfish was elevated from the conventional battered and fried form we all grew up loving to all sorts of fancy dishes served in restaurants around the world, including ceviche, a raw delicacy ordinarily reserved to being concocted with just the finest and most expensive specie of aquatic life. It even spawned its own national organization known as the Catfish Farmers of America. But no more, thanks to China and Vietnam.
Then, we read that one of China's manufacturing companies has just constructed the largest solar-panel installation at a U.S. college at Rutgers University in New Jersey. This is just the latest example of how China is taking the lead in developing green energy to not only address their domestic need for more energy, but to also export their large scale solar-panel manufacturing expertise worldwide, aided handsomely by significant government subsidies. And this specialized construction does not even consider the multitude of consumer products which we import not only from China but from all over the world. For example, just look at the labels on your clothing as I did recently and see if your experience compares with mine: socks from El Salvador; underwear from Cambodia, China and India; T-shirts from Bangladesh; shorts from Thailand, Bangladesh and Dominican Republic; baseball cap from Sri Lanka; running shoes from China; golf shirts from Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand; dress shirts from the Philippines, Turkey and Hong Kong; swimsuits from Cambodia; khakis from India; windbreaker from Ukraine; suits from Mexico, Portugal and Chile; raincoat from Indonesia; ties from USA; bathrobe from Turkey; sweaters from Singapore and Hong Kong; outdoor wear from Bangladesh; tennis shorts from Thailand and the USA; and luggage with "American" in the name from China. And this list doesn't even touch on consumer and electronic items, and we all know where they come from.
But then an odd thing has happened in China's pursuit of world-wide manufacturing dominance. In a culture where gift giving is deemed very important, Chinese returning from America are now finding it increasingly difficult to buy goods here to take back to friends and relatives that do not have "Made in China" labels on them, an identification which can be insulting to the recipient. In fact it has become such a problem for the Chinese that one person has even set up a website at ChineseInLA.com to help visiting Chinese choose from a dwindling list of American made products. So, this got me thinking about how we might reverse our ever decreasing manufacturing base to not only help our own domestic job situation, but also solve this uniquely Chinese problem.
Recent ads for Chrysler's new Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is billed as being "Imagined, drawn, carved, stamped, hewn and forged here in America" which "was once a country where people made things", may just hold the key for recapturing our former prominence. Forgetting about the politics of the situation and the anger it has created in the minds of some, the multi-billion dollar government bailout of the automotive industry appears to be paying real dividends for not only Chrysler but General Motors as well. Not only did those funds create jobs, they re-energized the notion that we really can still make things in America. To quote a tag line from that same Jeep ad, "THE THINGS WE MAKE, MAKE US. Going forward what needs to happen in my view is for corporate America to let loose of some of those two trillion dollars it has accumulated over the past two years as a direct result of additional taxpayer generosity, and re-kindle that same "Made in America" pride and spirit of three decades ago by funding new start-up companies itself, rather than waiting on the government to do it. Alan Greenspan and Mayor Michael Bloomberg seem to agree.