2008 Archives

O Say Can You Buy?


The following is from the November/December 2008 edition of Mother Jones magazine. Economist Ravi Batra of SMU's Dedman College provided expertise for this story.

December 12, 2008

By Nicole McClelland
Mother Jones Copy Editor

I had been cursing up and down the aisles at the grocery store for half an hour when I finally found a can of black beans claiming to be "100% usa family farm organically grown." I was on a weeklong mission to buy only American-made goods, and my very first shopping trip had turned into a debacle. I'd been forced to put back the bananas, cherries, coconut, and chipotle peppers, and I was about to blow $15 on a tiny bottle of US-made olive oil.

I was hoisting the beans triumphantly above my head when my roommate approached. "What about the packaging?" she asked. I scowled at her. More of the world's aluminum comes from China than from anywhere else; the only way to know the origins of this particular can was to call the company—and it was Saturday. "Buying American is such a pain in the ass!" I wailed.

In 1990, when I was in grade school, I watched a union-sponsored commercial in which a mother told her little boy that they would have to move because Dad had lost his job—too many people were buying imports. As union jobs dried up, so did that campaign; now, 14 years into nafta, buying local is hot, but buying American is, at best, a joke (though in August Barack Obama dusted off the sentiment with his "Buy American, Vote Obama" slogan). When I told Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, that I was going to buy only American for a week, he laughed. "I'm very sorry to hear that.

"It's exceptionally hard, if not impossible, to be 100 percent pure," he explained. "There are just some things you can't buy. It's incredibly difficult and depressing." . . .

 Anything I needed during that long week required hours of research and dozens of phone calls. Expensive domestic apples and strawberries busted my grocery budget. I'm still wearing a made-in-the-Philippines bra I bought in 2005. I failed my assignment and my country when out of desperation and frustration, respectively, I bought a pack of Sony CDs and a jar of peanut butter of dubious origin. The issue wasn't whether I could buy American—clearly, I couldn't. No, the real question was, Why should I even try?

I called Ravi Batra, a Southern Methodist University economics professor and best-selling author of The Great Depression of 1990, who reminded me that "it's important to revive our manufacturing base and create high-paying jobs." The US lost 212,000 manufacturing jobs last year alone, and the average manufacturing job pays $713 per week, nearly twice as much as the average retail gig. When wages go up, there's more employment because people buy more. When wages go down, people use credit. Patching this imbalance with debt means...well, we just found out. "In the end," Batra said gloomily, "there's a huge economic debacle."

Read the full story and related comments.

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