The NAFTA Legacy: Why Americans Have Forgotten ‘American Made’ Products

Would you prefer products made in America or made in China? According to a recent AP-GfK Poll:

The vast majority of Americans say they prefer lower prices instead of paying a premium for items labeled “Made in the U.S.A.,” even if it means those cheaper items are made abroad.

However, Nearly three in four say they would like to buy goods manufactured inside the United States, but those items are often too costly or difficult to find. A mere 9 percent say they only buy American.

We seem to like the idea but when the wallet comes out, we often opt for cheap.

Many of us will remember the once common slogan, “Buy American.” That slogan seemed to be gaining traction during the 80s and early 90s. One thing that helped usher out its use was the death of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart. Until then the slogan was seen all over the stores on signage and TV ads. Would Sam Walton recognize his store today? Would he reinstate the “Buy American” slogan in today’s marketplace?

Today, Mom and Pop stores are almost a total thing of the past – a novelty even in some places. International mega-corporations are the norm. In 2011, it was reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hired Madison Avenue PR firms to discourage the “Buy American” slogan. They seemed to be siding with Goliath over the David in the business world. These Goliaths are able to drive out smaller businesses with buying power of cheap products made in places like China. While most Americans are aware of the problem, they continue to opt to buy the cheap products -unaware of their own buying power perhaps.

Going back to December 8, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It opened doors to trade arrangements with Canada and Mexico but also helped countries like China and others to sell Americans cheaply made products at stores like Wal-Mart and Target. Today NAFTA is widely criticized and attacked by Republicans like Donald Trump. It’s also been heavily criticized by President Obama. Hillary Clinton’s website today says “NAFTA was negotiated more than 14 years ago, and Hillary believes it has not lived up to its promises.” Bernie Sanders is also against NAFTA and similar trade policies and voiced his opposition to it at the time, stating that it would only benefit the “ruling elites of the United States, Mexico, and Canada.”

It seems everybody is in rare agreement that NAFTA, while considered a landmark at the time, has created real problems not foreseen when it was first enacted. Trump loves to criticize Hillary for NAFTA, but does not seem to remember that NAFTA began with Ronald Reagan, and was then negotiated and signed by President George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton supported NAFTA and pushed approval through Congress. It actually had more Republican support at the time than Democratic, a fact that Trump will surely want to conceal. It was a time when bipartisan cooperation actually existed –hardly recognizable today.

The dilemma of markets saturated with cheap goods made overseas has translated to concrete problems here at home. To compete, more companies decide to give up on the notion of quality American-made products altogether, and receive positive reinforcement from consumers who opt to buy products of less quality in favor of saving money. As a former customer service person, I would often talk to people complaining about cheaply made products and demanding that they work as expected, and yet still demanding that the prices be ever lower. At some point, it became the norm for people to expect everything for nothing it seems. But we are living in reality, and that is not a system that can be maintained in reality, when it translates to people living in greater levels of poverty while the ‘ruling elites’ live lavish lifestyles of luxury at our collective expense. This scenario has favored the oligarchy, and the complex problems that go along with wealth inequality as a result. NAFTA certainly was one thing that contributed to the state we are in today – but it’s just one small part.

For example, when people are not good at or resistant to understanding abstraction, they can be totally guilt free about buying electronics that do miraculous things at cheap prices while people detached in another part of the world are living in suicidal conditions. We don’t feel the guilt because we don’t know the people that make the products, and the horrendous conditions they live in. We don’t feel it, and we think it best not to. It’s just the way of the world these days, we say to ourselves. Technology further enables us to isolate ourselves, and to ignore the abstract.

We have our cheap hamburgers, and I’m sure you know where this leads, but understandably don’t like to think about it–to overcrowded inhumane slaughter houses. Places that have such a low value of life that animals face nightmarish existences, pollution flows into the groundwater, gases fowl the air to the extent that the whole earth apparently starts to warm at the sheer scale of unsustainable gluttony and hubris. But we don’t feel it. We go through the drive-through to avoid human interaction, and scarf down a meal because we must eat. We are too busy to think about what we are doing really.

Just about every one of us hope for a society that values life more not less, but the system wants the exact opposite, and who are we but small insignificant people to change that?

Taking pride in what we make at home-“American Made,” would mean that we are proud of conditions here at home. But more and more of us struggle to make ends meet, and the decision to support quality, and integrity are seen as luxury items. The value of life itself is so low to corporations, especially in international markets where sweat shop conditions are considered satisfactory –where animal life is just seen as expendable and of no consequence at all–where the environment is ruined because the scale of human activity is more and more vast and uncontrollable. World markets have not elevated our society in many cases, but brought us down to the same level as those suffering elsewhere, whether we choose to see them or not.

What turns it all around?

In 2016, the United States is fractured into two camps it seems. Donald Trump talks about stopping outsourcing and US exploitation in global markets while exploiting them himself to make his own products like his neck ties and alienating millions of people. With his talk about building farcical walls, he clearly would demolish trade with Mexico in his first day in office.

Hillary Clinton, with the experience of witnessing the affects of NAFTA herself, opposes new trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership:

[]…when I saw what was in it, it was clear to me there were too many loopholes, too many opportunities for folks to be taken advantage of.

International trade deals are one part of the complex equation that is crushing the middle class. The next Presidential election will help to decide the course of American trade in the world. That fate will be decided by American consumers who turn into voters for one day. If only those consumers realized that their power extends beyond the vote. Our power to direct the evolution of society is there each and every day with what we decide to buy –our buying power is real.

Maybe it’s also a good time to revisit the American Made slogan, and why exactly we let it be forgotten for so long. It stood for quality, integrity, working hard for decent living wages for companies we could expect to retire with. We could achieve great things in our lifetime and have economic success –the American dream once realistically attainable, and now dangerously close to being just another forgotten slogan.

Featured image composite from Wikipedia

About Matthew Silvan 283 Articles
Matthew Silvan is a gay man from the American South who has spent years fighting against the scapegoating and demonization imposed on the LGBT community by Republicans and religious hypocrites and zealots. His writing reflects the constant struggle to overcome the inequality and discrimination still rampant in America. He is an advocate for diversity and progress, with a passion for nature and preserving the environment, who also tends to approach things in a lighthearted way despite it all.

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