Guest Column | Why “Made in America” is Ready to Make a Comeback
By Dan Depew
Director of Business Development, Holt Construction
Published in “On the Level,” Fall 2022
“Y’know they’re still shippin’ them over here. They put ’em in cars, they put ‘em in yer tv. They put ‘em in stereos and those little radios you stick in your ears. They even put ‘em in watches, they have teeny gremlins for our watches!”
– Murray Futterman
This publication is for people in the construction industry; builders, suppliers, engineers, architects and owners. Most of you reading this live here in the United States, and what you do every day underscores the proud intent encompassed by the phrase “Made in America.”
It was the patriotic mantra echoed in homes in the early 1940s, when the U.S. was at war with Germany and Japan. This was based on both national pride and necessity; America was one of the few countries still manufacturing anything, and we needed to swiftly grow our economy. As soldiers returned home, the demand for Made in America remained strong.
I first became aware of “Made in America” when I was about 10 years old while shopping with my mom, and it seemed every clothing rack and every shelf was filled with products boasting “Made in America.” This was also when one of my favorite movies, “Gremlins,” was in theaters, and there’s a memorable scene in which Murray Futterman tells his grandson why folks should buy American-made products:
- Futterman Reason No. 1: As a WWII veteran, buying American was a matter of national pride.
- Futterman Reason No. 2: Foreign countries hide Gremlins inside products bound for the U.S. Those Gremlins would then, at a pre-ordained time, simultaneously destroy the cars, planes and dishwashers upon which Americans rely, creating mass chaos and destruction.
That’s not what happened in the film, but by the early 1990s, around the end of the Gulf War and with the economy beginning to wane, the U.S. began to walk back the Made in America focus. It’s when we saw the lean into cheaply made goods, and large trade treaties like NAFTA pushed low cost manufacturing. Thus began the wave of cheaply made, short lasting, disposable goods.
To many Americans, the quality-to-savings trade-off was worth it, and this new infatuation with low-cost items affected everything from simple items to complex goods. In the early 2000s, when ultra conservatives made a push through the Tea Party faction, there was a renewed interest in Made in America goods, but by then the damage to U.S. manufacturing was too deep. At best, a final product could claim it was Made in the USA, but as much as 90 percent of its components were likely manufactured elsewhere.
And while cheap, internationally-produced components coupled with final Made in the USA bragging rights may seem to be the best of both worlds, it was, in many ways, the end of America controlling its own destiny.
Meanwhile, some contend that if we interrupt trade or overburden international goods with high tariffs, Americans will pay far higher prices. This stance, though, has recently been rebuffed by our current situation with inflation. I’m not saying globalization caused inflation in everything, but one can argue that dependency on goods delivered by foreign companies overseen by adversarial governments (who can reduce exports for any reason, at any time) is a grave threat to national security.
The supply chain is affecting inflation, and foreign governments are affecting what we pay for materials and goods. But not the way we thought it would. And yes, almost everything has a Gremlin in it. In fact, Gremlins are the widgets that make up the things we need; they’re the components, and without them, we have nothing.
Most of you know what I’m talking about here. HVAC, electrical components, computer chips and every small nut and bolt needed to get a thing built, assembled, or fixed is simply not available, and even when we can it the price is astronomical, the lead time is crazy and the quality is poor.
So maybe old man Futterman wasn’t entirely wrong after all. Sure, he was wrong about monsters popping out of appliances, but we are exposed to a global market, including countries with whom we are not in complete alliance.
The drive to globalize all aspects of the U.S. supply chain was to reduce cost, increase competition, and yes, increase profits for American manufacturers. We are poised at the beginning of a solution to a problem faced by all of us.
The answer is the repatriation of manufacturing of key components back to the United States. This is already afoot in the design world, and we shall soon be seeing a building boom driven back to U.S. manufacturing. If I’m right about all this, the way we prepare students for work and careers will change too.