Made in America: Consumers could have more influence than the White House
President Donald Trump kicked off "Made in America" week on Monday at the White House with a showcase of consumer products from all 50 states.
But while promoting Made in America as "the world standard for quality and craftsmanship," questions linger about whether the American consumer has the appetite or the cash to buy those goods.
Trump himself has been criticized since announcing Made in America week, as the majority of his retail goods, from suits and ties to Trump brand vodka are sourced from overseas. Even his properties are outfitted with furniture and appliances from abroad.
Regardless of the apparent hypocrisy of the businessman-turned-politician taking advantage of the trade agreements he has scorned as "unfair," the message Trump sent in the 2016 campaign resonates with most Americans' thinking about products made in the U.S.A.
Consumer research and public polls show that Americans would overwhelmingly prefer to buy goods with a "Made in the U.S.A." label than products produced overseas.
A 2016 poll by the Associated Press found that 75 percent of Americans, regardless of income, would like to buy American goods. The biggest problem, though, is that U.S. made goods are often "too costly or difficult to find," according to respondents.
Marketing research has also found a majority of consumers would buy a product made in the U.S. because their believe it will support the economy and because they believe they will be getting a higher quality product.
But what consumers say and what they actually do is often quite different. At the end of the day, faced with the choice between a $50 pair of pants made in another country or an $85 pair made in the United States, only 30 percent polled by AP said they would pay extra for pants made in the U.S.A.
That choice between a cheaper foreign import over a domestically manufactured product is made every day by consumers, companies and even governments. For decades, Americans have exercised that preference for cheaper goods, cheaper materials and cheaper labor. That has meant less preference for higher priced American-made products and the American workers who make them.
According to James Stuber, author of the 2016 book 'What If Things Were Made in America Again,' the only way to reverse that trend is for consumers to decide to do it.
"The answer has been staring us in the face all this time. The consumers could solve this problem just by our buying choices," Stuber said. "There's a solution that is ready at hand, because consumers, we're 70 percent of the economy. If we decide we wanted to bring these jobs back, we could."
The fact that Trump made the issue a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign and is spreading the message in policy-themed weeks is important. Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign was also important for bringing the problems of globalization, free-trade and outsourcing out into the open. But there are questions about how much the president can do to reverse the decades long decline in U.S. manufacturing and the desire to buy goods from overseas.
"There is a substantial groundswell of willingness on the part of the U.S. consumer to buy a made in the USA product," said Harry Moser, founder of the Reshoring Initiative. "But you have to change the tilted playing field, change the terms of trade so the cost of making things in the U.S. comes down to the level of the cost of importing something from offshore."
It's also important to help consumers find the products that are made in America, "until we get more made in the USA products on the shelf."
In recent years new websites and apps have popped up to help Americans find those products. The Reshoring Initiative is focused on helping companies assess the real costs of taking production offshore.
The more persistent problem is a decline in America's ability to compete in international trade, Moser said.
The U.S. trade deficit, averaging between $500 to $700 billion per year over the past decade, and a deficit of skilled workers and manufacturing floor space to produce the U.S. goods are the longer-term problems that the president needs to address.
"To get it done right you have to do it over a ten year period," Moser advised. "But it's unambiguous, you could get it done."
So far, Trump has taken a number of steps.
In his first month in office, Trump pulled the United States out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and in May he announced his intent to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Both initiatives were aimed at re-calibrating the massive trade imbalance the United States has with the majority of its free-trade partners
Trump signed executive orders to strengthen Made in America laws, requiring major pipeline projects to use U.S.-sourced materials. In June, Trump announced more federal funds to promote apprenticeships, an effort to develop the skilled workforce needed to fill approximately 6 million job vacancies in the United States.
The administration's promise to tackle tax reform and further roll back regulations affecting the cost of doing business in the United States is still in the works, and President Trump will have to continue making strides to keep confidence high.
"I was more confidence when Trump was elected than I am today, because he is so embroiled in these other issues that he doesn't even talk about it as much," Moser said aobut Trump's economic agenda. "He isn't getting the things passed that he should be, taxes and regulations and trade agreements. He's not getting his job done."
But there are doubts about how much of an effect Trump can have on the real driver of the economy, consumption.
"There are big limitations on what he can get done," Stuber explained. "As long as consumers are willing to buy the less expensive foreign made things, then its really not possible for the U.S. manufacturer to say, 'Please buy my products.' ... As long as people are prepared to buy the Buick made in China or the Ford made in Mexico, we won't get anywhere renegotiating trade deals."
Trump could do the most good by bringing attention to the problem of America's appetite for foreign made goods and promoting the U.S. government, and companies and consumers to invest in those products.
"I think awareness of the problem is very important and that's where President Trump or any president can do the most good," Stuber noted. "If people became aware of how much of a problem this is causing, and really decided that it was important to them, it's something we could turn around right away."