Made-in-America shouldn’t be a political football

Peter Rose

HBO did a documentary on the clothing business in this country called “Schmatta:  Rags to Riches to Rags.”  

It was focused on the New York garment district over the 50 year span of 1960 through 2010, and it illustrates decline in the only business sector I can really weigh in on with any knowledge.  The schmatta business is the rag business, slang for clothing business, which I joined in 1971.

There are many tangents I could explore with that opening paragraph, but the point I wish to amplify today is the statistics that were shared in this documentary, specific to clothing but illustrative of a broader trendline in America:

In 1965, 95 percent of all the apparel bought in this country was made in this country. By 2005  – just 40 years –  95 percent had become 5 percent.  That’s impossible, and true.  

If you had visited the garment district when I did for the first time (1975), you would still remember the incredible bee hive of activity that defined that area of New York, and the very industry that caused all the action. 

In forty years of my life, one industry (mine) was nearly entirely off-shored, virtually eliminating a wellspring of jobs that until that trend developed, never ran dry.  

You have to allow yourself to consider all the manufacturing capacity that was shuttered, machinery sold or abandoned, jobs erased in city after city.  

These were solid, working class jobs centered squarely in the middle class of America.  These companies were nearly all local and independent, family-owned businesses that took pride and pleasure in looking after the “family” of workers that made their “Made-in-America” products that rang the registers of countless independent merchants across the nation.

If this was the only industry that had been abandoned in our country, it would be depressingly devastating, but such is not the case.  

When I consider the state of the steel industry here over the same period, or shoes, or electronics, or drugs, or frankly just about everything, my conclusions are not very flattering to the leadership of the United States.  

Neither party had any vision whatsoever regarding the unintended consequences of truly unfettered, unregulated market force policy.  

I distinctly remember the public debate of “what will WE make, then?”  The shockingly flippant attitude of those in charge was essentially one that said market forces will determine the outcomes, and free market policy was the paramount umbrella under which we all would sink or swim. 

I am heartened to hear the sentiments being shared about buying American, but the scope of our problem makes those sentiments simply sad whimpers of bewildered loss that could have been avoided completely.  

I am not xenophobic by any measure; not even close. But I am also not so stupid as to simply hand over the jobs, boasting that as-yet unknown jobs would arise to replace those lost. 

The truth behind this calamitous mis-step in policy regarding the protection of American jobs is not a mystery. I concede that there are more facets of the balance of trade problem than what I am boiling it down to, but I have yet to hear anything, from anyone or any source that convinces me that we were right in actively pursuing this destruction of American industry.

Dereliction of duty is not an overstatement.

Why did it happen?  Because we erected virtually no barriers to protect our jobs from the onslaught of world-wide (mainly Asian) suppliers, manufactured by people who got paid far less than American workers. Obviously, this strategy directed more of the pie to the American companies that built that capacity overseas.  

There was no determination to keep American jobs, there were no penalties for pursuing this path.  There were no rewards that served as disincentives to abandon those workers and the incomes that fed their families. 

My stores buy a great deal of apparel from Canadian makers, mainly Montreal, which still has an absolutely thriving apparel industry, and it is so because Quebec and Canada want it to be so. They have tried far harder to protect that gross national product and the jobs that derive from the manufacture of tangible goods. 

I don’t purport to be well versed in import/export policy. When confronted with macro issues like this, I am quickly proven to be decidedly uneducated. But it doesn’t take genius to see what happened right before the eyes of my generation.  

As debates take place now, consider that neither political party can lay claim to having done the right thing along the way since American economic policy went off the rails. Both parties have been beholden to forces that bought elections and prevented them from advocating for Americans they serve. 

The topic is not so simple as this, but: Blaming China for USA capitalistic endeavors is folly. Capitalists right here in America built that foreign infrastructure that would serve their own aims, raise their share prices, and enrich themselves. It is that brutally simple.  

Fixing it, now, is a difficult, daunting hill to climb.  Even beginning to think about the scope of the task is headache-inducing. 

It happens, but pointing fingers across the aisle and blaming opponents is embarrassingly specious and frankly stupid. Serious minds need to dig into this and figure out how to dig America out of this hole.

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