Friends Don't Let Friends Buy Imports

The number of Americans living below the poverty line rose to a record 46 million last year, the government said on Tuesday...

The economic deterioration depicted by the figures is likely to have continued into 2011 as economic growth diminished, unemployment remained stuck above 9 percent and fears grew of a possible double-dip recession.

--Reuters

September 13th was Dad's birthday; our big Italian family's first without our beloved patriarch. He would've been 93. I still can't quite believe that he's no longer here; that he's out of range and can't be reached. Can you hear me now? Um, nope.

After he turned 80, Dad sometimes began sentences with "Before I leave this planet, I'd like to…" I'd picture him off in the galaxy, co-piloting some sort of spaceship, tinkering with the instrument panel, beads of perspiration on his upper lip. "Hey, I have a great idea…" he'd say to the other pilot. "If we bank to the right more…"

He was always thinking, inventing, trying to figure out better ways to do things.

And that's why in 1975, with nationwide unemployment at 8.5 percent (12 percent in California) Dad sat at his typewriter and hammered out his thoughts on the topic. One passionate American writing to anyone willing to listen. In 1990, when Dad bequeathed his 20-page "Import Backlash and the Unemployment Crunch" paper to me, I figured it'd sit in one of my files, gathering dust. Who cared if America's middle class jobs were being offshored? Our country was fine, thank you very much. Manufacturing was so yesterday. What was he thinking? That crazy father of mine.

Since January 1st, 2011, I've come to appreciate Dad's genius. I'd always known he was a genius in engineering and cinematography, but for the past few months I've awakened to his genius in economics. In "Import Backlash and the Unemployment Crunch," Dad explained that job creation required capital. Problem was, America's capital had gone missing. Here's Dad:

"If we take a look into the 'lost-and-found' department of the American free enterprise system we are apt to stumble upon the common denominator for 'lost jobs' and 'missing capital'…

...one only needs to explore what happens when a U.S. factory employing 2,000 people suddenly shifts its entire production outside the United States in order to take advantage of lower labor costs. In this instance 2,000 American workers lose their jobs…and the purchasing power of 2,000 people is extinguished…several millions of American citizens are looking for jobs…The purchasing power of these displaced workers vis-à-vis their weekly paychecks is extinguished…"

Dad posited that unless we did something to stop the loss of manufacturing jobs to other countries, U.S. unemployment would hover at or near 10 percent on a permanent basis. Fast forward to 2011: nationwide unemployment stands at an unthinkable 9.1 percent (12.4 percent in California). The middle class is shrinking. The number of people living at or below poverty level is astounding. And we've created a vicious cycle wherein unemployed and underemployed Americans need those super cheap imports to make ends meet, thus ensuring their jobs will never return. It's like we need to start a "Just Say No" campaign. "Just Say No to Imports." "The Job You Save May Be Your Own." "Friends Don't Let Friends Buy Imports." We could stand outside big box / department stores, pass out little red, white and blue striped pin-on ribbons, say "Look for the Made in the U.S.A. label when you shop!" It just might work (but you go first).

The day before Dad's birthday, I came across a quote in the San Jose Mercury News by Jethroe Moore, president of the San Jose chapter of the NAACP. He was responding to a book on a different subject, but his words spoke to this country's current economic woes:

"Growing up in San Jose, we used to be able to come out of high school and get a job at a manufacturing company and work our way up to a management position…Now those possibilities are gone, because Silicon Valley has so little manufacturing."

It's as if a neutron bomb hit manufacturing. Now you see it, now it's gone. Poof.

In his thought provoking book Great Again: Revitalizing America's Entrepreneurial Leadership Silicon Valley entrepreneur Henry R. Nothhaft seems to underscore Mr. Moore's thoughts. Mr. Nothhaft sees manufacturing as the key to resuscitating an America that's fallen so far behind it's now rated "dead last" on Information Technology & Innovation Foundation's list of the 40 most advanced nations on earth. Mr. Nothhaft explains that while Silicon Valley has produced hugely successful innovation in social media, it hasn't necessarily produced many jobs.

"Facebook has 500 million users and on January 3, 2011, its market value jumped…to a staggering $50 billion…Yet it employs only 1,400 people…for the first time in our history, the connection between technological innovation and job creation has broken down."

Mr. Nothhaft recalls his childhood in Sharon, Pennsylvania, where his German-immigrant father worked at a steel mill.

"I'm struck by how good life really was for working people back then. In those days, the citizens of Sharon enjoyed a prosperous middle class existence…And the local economy offered all that anyone needed to enjoy a decent, upwardly mobile life…plenty of jobs not only for factory workers, tradesmen, and service providers but also for doctors, teachers, lawyers, and professionals of every sort as well."

Each job on the factory floor created "as many as fifteen jobs outside manufacturing--in skilled trades, engineering, products design, transport and supply, and many service sectors."

By the 1980s, says Nothhaft, things had changed:

"…our nation began to divorce innovation from production. In our arrogance and naiveté, we told ourselves that so long as America did the 'creative' work, the inventing, we could let other nations do the 'grunt' work, the manufacturing. We did not yet understand that a nation that no longer makes things will eventually forget how to invent them."

Dad saw this flawed thinking early on. He and Nothhaft (and Intel's Andy Grove) would've had a swell time swapping innovative ideas. I look forward to reading more about how Nothhaft proposes to restore both innovation and "grunt work" to our country. I'll pass along interesting tidbits as I read them.

Getting back to Dad's "Before I leave this planet" phrase, I've decided to picture him on an intergalactic vehicle called (nod to Gene Rodenberry) the Starship Free Enterprise. American flags are painted on every side of the vehicle, and as it zooms from here to the Great Unknown, Dad's smiling at the heavenly possibilities.

And here on earth my Dad-inspired Buy U.S.A. mission continues full throttle. More product finds and interviews with company reps to come. In the meantime, check out the adorable Baptism / Christening outfit my 4-month old grandson wore this past weekend. Found at Nordstrom; made by a Utah company called Little Things Mean a Lot. Here's the awe inspiring story behind the company. Apparently there's a good possibility someone named Arlyce made the very outfit my grandbaby wore:

"Arlyce has worked as a seamstress at Little Things Mean a Lot for over two decades. She takes a tremendous amount of pride in her work so that customers receive a christening gown that is just like grandma would have made. To Arlyce, made in the USA quality still means a great deal. As a very skilled seamstress, Arlyce is given the most demanding and difficult tasks in the sewing plant. When you purchase one of our exquisite silk or cotton gowns, chances are Arlyce did some of the work on that gown."

Thanks for your beautiful work, Arlyce.

And thanks for your guidance, Dad. Yes, I can hear you now.