Unraveling Our Economic Mess, One Turkey at a Time

The yellow-gold leaves on our neighbors' elms shimmer against the clear blue sky. It's Thanksgiving week. So much for which to be grateful.

This morning I hiked up toward the ridge a couple of blocks from my house. Just a few feet ahead, a deer stood in the road. Its antlers branched out in regal splendor. I stopped, transfixed, then backed away and hid behind a front yard hedge. Minutes later the animal loped off, soundless, swift; its departure as startling as its arrival.

Wait. Come back.

Dad passed away last Thanksgiving weekend. I can't believe it's been about a year now. Cliche as it sounds, it really does still feel like he was here just yesterday.

He's in my mind's eye on walks, Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" playing on my iPod, or mornings when I read the Los Angeles Times--his lifelong newspaper of choice--online; or at a recent gathering when the hostess served homemade pineapple upside down cake. Oh, that was his favorite dessert. But most often lately it's when I'm playing with my grandbaby. How your Great Grandpa would've loved you!

I must admit that for the first few months this project was more about magical thinking, about keeping Dad alive through his 1975 "Import Backlash" words, than about country and patriotism and bringing manufacturing jobs back home. But at some point the two purposes dovetailed. His written words became the underpinnings for this project. I'm grateful for him in a new way this Thanksgiving.

To mark the coming anniversary of Dad's passing, here's more from "Import Backlash":

In 1970 William Sheskey appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee in Washington during its trade hearings. Sheskey told the committee how he purchased a modern U.S. shoe factory and immediately shut it down. He testified: "I shipped the lasts, dies, and patterns and the management and much of the leather to Europe, and I am making the same shoes under the same brand name, selling them to the same customers, with the same management, for one reason: The labor where I am now making the shoes is 50 cents an hour as compared to the $3.00 that I was paying in New Jersey. Here is a perfect example of where I took everything American except the labor and that is exactly why I bought."

In order to grasp some measure of its impact, simply multiply the above incident by 100…200…(?)…and it is easy to understand why several thousands (millions) of American citizens are looking for jobs. Some are forced to pull up stakes and try their luck in another town. Others are forced to seek government assistance in the form of re-training programs. Others join the swelling army of welfare recipients. The important thing to remember here is this: The purchasing power of these displaced workers vis-à-vis their weekly paychecks is promptly extinguished either temporarily or permanently.

As we probe even deeper for the "missing capital" we soon discover that the Sheskey case was not just an isolated incident. This practice is now widespread. It has been going on for a long time. For proof of this we have estimates by Harvard Professor Raymond Vernon that "…almost 8,000 subsidiaries of U.S. companies are in operation abroad, generating imports aimed at our own domestic markets." At the present writing, foreign imports, per se, now represent nearly one-third of all our consumer goods. Thus the American worker (blue collar and white collar alike) is caught in the crossfire of "import backlash"--a strangely new phenomenon wherein U.S.-based companies are operating in tandem with foreign manufacturers in what amounts to a massive assault on the domestic purchasing power of the American citizenry.

By the way, Mr. Sheskey died in 2005 at age 84. During his lifetime he fought to keep footwear manufacturing in this country. From his obituary:

William Sheskey was a shoe company executive who helped transform the public's perception of footwear from merely serving a utilitarian function to making a fashion statement…

As president of Commonwealth Shoe and Leather Co. in Whitman--and later as head of the National Shoe Manufacturers Association--he lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill to keep shoe industry jobs from going overseas and insisted on relying on U.S. companies to supply the materials for making shoes.

Fast forward to the present day. Unemployment is through the roof. Ninety-nine percent of all footwear sold in this country is now made--for our own American companies--by foreign workers overseas, using materials found Anywhere But Here. Profits are, of course, up. But think of the countless jobs lost. Think of the dwindling middle class. And yes, think of the amorphous, chaotic Occupy Wall Street movement. If it would drop the craziness, fold up the tents, and instead picket during business hours in front of retail stores across America like Apple, Costco, Target, Fry's Electronics, I'd grab a sign and join the protest. Just Say No to Imports! Make It Here, Sell It There! Bring Jobs Back to the U.S.A!

Christmas is four weeks away. Imagine the message we American consumers can send this holiday season if we leave imported merchandise on the shelves and only snatch up items made here. But be prepared for a challenge. I shopped all over town yesterday for U.S.A.-made gifts and returned home, empty handed.

When I went out again to buy Thanksgiving groceries, I discovered the "GoodCook" brand kitchen twine I needed (to wrap around my turkey) had been Made in China for Bradshaw International, Inc., a privately owned company located in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

Much more than string is at stake here. From Bloomberg Businessweek:

Bradshaw International, Inc. engages in marketing kitchenware products. It also markets bakeware, cookware, household, and food storage and tabletop products. In addition, the company offers accessories, bag clips, baking products, baste roasts, basting spoons, bowls, colanders, cookie sheets, corkscrews, cut boards, cutlery, dispensers, ovens, flatware, graters, griddle grills, grill brushes, ice cream scoops, kettles, ladles, loafs, mashers, muffins, multi cookers, nutcrackers, openers, pantry, peelers, pies, pizza cutters, plates, refrigerators, roasters, slice chops, slotted spoons, slotted turners, stock pots, squares, stovetops, strainers, straws, tongs, toothpicks, turners, whisk beats, and wood spoons. It sells its products online, as well as through retailers. The company was founded in 1969 and is headquartered in Rancho Cucamonga, California with additional offices and a showroom in Hong Kong.

And so it goes. All those kitchen gadgets, which undoubtedly used to be manufactured in this country back in 1969, have flown the coop. Thousands of jobs, gone.

Wait. Come back.

But we still have choices. Thanks to a Google search, I quickly discovered that my local Sur La Table carries "Regency Naturals 100% Cotton Cooking Twine" ($7.95 / 550 ft; also available online). Made in the U.S.A. for a company in Dallas, Texas.

I should tie some Regency Naturals string around my index finger each and every day to remind myself to keep looking for products made here. If people ask why I have string tied in a bow on my finger I'll spread the Buy American message, say we're all tied up in this economic mess together, and together we can unravel it, one roll of turkey twine at a time.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Next up: The exemplary company behind the Made in the U.S.A. space heater Don and I just purchased.