That’s one of the messages author and activist James Stuber is trying to spread.
While James Stuber was changing a burned out light bulb in his home one day in 2012, he had his own personal light bulb moment.
“I took out the lightbulb to replace it and I looked at it and on it was the GE (General Electric) logo and underneath that in all capital letters was the word CHINA,” Stuber said. “The juxtaposition of the two things — since I considered GE stood for Thomas Edison and all things American — made me think if GE is making its light bulbs in China, maybe we have a problem.”
Stuber had been shopping a few days prior to the light bulb moment and noticed that most everything in the store had been made in China, Vietnam and Bangladesh.
“These things all kind of grabbed a hold of me and I wouldn’t let go,’’ said Stuber, who has built a career as an attorney, legislative aide on Capitol Hill, entrepreneur, and candidate for Congress. “I really wanted to know what the heck was going on.”
He began what turned out to be three years of research and in 2017, Stuber added author to his resume with the release of his book “What if Things Were Made in America Again: How Consumers Can Rebuild the Middle Class by Buying Things Made in American Communities.”
The goal of Stuber’s book was to answer three pertinent questions: Why does it seem like everything is made somewhere else? Isn’t that causing a problem? And if it is, what can be done about it?
America has an approximately $800 billion trade deficit with countries around the world, nearly half of which is a whopping $365 billion trade imbalance with China.
But despite the complexities of trade policy and the U.S. economy, Stuber reached the conclusion that American consumers are the most likely of all factors to rein in the constantly rising trade deficit and help put America back on a level playing field with our trading partners.
Stuber holds bachelors and masters degrees in political science from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, respectively, and a law degree from Georgetown University. He resides in Berwyn, Pa. with his wife and four teenage children.
In an interview, Stuber explains why American consumers can provide the most effective economic bailout with their power to purchase American-made goods.
Jeffrey Bonior: Why does it seem like everything we see in our stores is made in some other country?
James Stuber: The short answer is because it is. I did research on the various categories of goods, and 95 percent of our apparel is coming from overseas, 70 percent of our appliances, 70 percent of our electronics. There are whole categories of goods that over the decades we have just sent somewhere else to be made.
JB: How and why did this happen?
JS: The U.S adopted faulty free trade theories, globalization happened, and China entered the global market. China had gone communist in 1949, so a lot of this was fighting communism by giving countries like Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and these Asian tigers whole industries starting with clothing. It gave these countries some of our markets instead of having them trade with communist China.
The second era is what I call the China Globalization Era, from 1995 to 2015, when we stepped onto the globalization merry-go-round just outsourcing everything. The big thing, the inflection point, was in 2001 when we granted China permanent favored nation tariff treatment and admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Then things really took off. The irony about this and the thing that really bothers me is that our leaders, who are supposed to know what they are doing, were pursuing these free trade policies that clearly made no sense.
JB: The stock market is thriving and unemployment is at 3.9 percent, so isn’t America doing well?
JS: Most of us are not doing very well at all compared to the cost of living in America. And what we’ve been doing to ordinary Americans raises profound moral questions. The stock market almost has nothing to do with the working and middle class, and the unemployment numbers are misleading because it counts bad jobs, jobs where people are working almost no hours even though they wish they had a full-time job. So, when you look deeper, 10 percent would probably be a more realistic number for people that are underemployed and underpaid. Wages are basically stagnant. The Federal Reserve said that 40 percent of Americans couldn’t immediately come up with $400 in an emergency. We are on thin ice and people know it.
JB: Your book touches on all things made in America, but how important is it for the U.S. to have a thriving industrial base like the steel and automotive industries?
JS: My passion for this grew out of my family working in the steel mills in Pittsburgh and Steubenville. The mill where The Deer Hunter was filmed in Mingo Junction, Ohio is the town where my parents grew up in and all my family worked. I pick up the story in in the book in 1945 when our soldiers were fighting their way across Europe and the islands of the Pacific and there were a couple of places where the Japanese and Germans both saw these columns and columns of American tanks, jeeps and trucks and realized what they were up against. There was a mill in California that made all of the Liberty Ships and it was really America’s industrial might, the core of which was steelmaking, that carried the day in World War II.
Now we are locked in another geopolitical fight with China and Russia and not realizing the importance from a security standpoint of the steel industry. I’ve concluded no economy is strong without a strong manufacturing sector. And to rely on other countries for either the raw steel or things in the steel supply chain is just hollowing out our economy. You need steel for security and you need steel for a strong economy.
JB: What is your opinion of President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, and why do you think there is such a pushback from some downstream manufacturers?
JS: It is disheartening to see how quickly many U.S. companies are to throw under the bus those companies farther upstream in the supply chain just to protect their own niche. But they are mistaken if they believe that they are not themselves vulnerable to foreign competition. The Chinese and other mercantilists want to occupy the entire supply chain, especially in high value-added products. This is all spelled out in China’s “Made in China 2025” plan.
I don’t understand why we are hearing such vociferous objections to paying a fair price for steel, one that includes paying workers a living family wage and a modest profit for the company.
JB: How will consumers purchasing Made-in-America products alleviate our trade deficit?
JS: Consumers, and only consumers, can solve this problem. We can bring home $650 billion in spending, create 6 or 7 million jobs and get a virtuous circle going in the economy.
I think that if consumers realize that what we are doing now is not sustainable and that there is a very high cost to that low price of goods, it will drive consumers to want to do this. If they realize the stakes are high and they really have the power to rebuild the American economy and get us growing at a faster clip, I think they will do it. They need this education. Once they read my book and get the facts, they will stop and just pay attention to their purchasing power.
I sometimes approach people and say, ‘I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your smartphone was made in a labor camp, your clothes were made in a sweatshop and your fish were caught by a slave ship.’ This is morally wrong and has caused a massive increase across the world in what two Princeton economists have called Death of Despair.
JB: Your theory has merit, but isn’t the bottom line that people will be spending more for products?
JS: Yes, sometimes. My son’s first hammer cost $25 instead of $15. It was worth it to support the community that made it. Often things don’t cost more. Oreo cookies, now made in Mexico, cost the same price as they did when they were made in Chicago.
JB: How can you get the American consumers to understand that something Made in America is an investment in their own lives and communities?
JS: It is going to require an education process to change a lot of consumer thinking. Where we are right now [is] just focused on price, price, price. We are not recognizing the high cost of that low price. In foreign countries where laborers are exploited and the high cost in the U.S. starting with families that lose their manufacturing jobs in the community and the high cost to all of us who are paying taxes and trying to deal with all this dependency, drug addiction and social problems. If you add all that up into the price of that good, [what] we thought was a low price really wasn’t such a low price at all. That’s going to require a wake-up call for many Americans.
JB: Is it realistic for American consumers to pay higher prices for Made in America products?
JS: It is. Just look at the evidence for people willing to buy organic or buy green. People are paying a lot more for these things, which they perceive of particular value. We see other trends where people are willing to pay more for something they really care about. Of course, you start with the people that are able to pay more, and work your way down through the economy, and as you do the prices come down and it will kind of converge at some point. It seems like right now everything in the food store is organic, and the prices are a lot less than they used to be.
At one time I was involved in the tourism business in Florida and you heard about hotels advertising they were green hotels. I was thinking, ‘Who cares if their hotel is green?’ Well, it turned out consumers did. The hotel companies responded by rebuilding or retrofitting those hotels to make them green. So, consumers are saying to builders: ‘I care about those components in my house,’ and there was a change to make them green. It’s not going to be easy but it’s doable, very doable.
And then you really know you are helping someone in America. It is easy to look up these companies if you want to. (Editor’s note: Check out our directory!) They are often in small towns and your purchase is helping these communities. You can indeed be assured you are helping someone when you buy American.
JB: Do you have additional strategies to influence Buy American?
JS: There is a third leg to my story and it is the policy leg. Although I believe consumers can do this without asking the government for support or permission, there are other things we want to ask the government for. And two of them are related as a consumer solution.
The big one I want to pursue is a fair country of origin labeling where people can tell really where something is coming from. While there are several laws that cover that, the information should be prominently displayed in advertising, in catalogues, in online displays and in stores so through the packaging consumers can make an informed choice. This is an area where we are sorely lacking right now.
The other thing is to strengthen the Buy America laws at the national, state and local levels so when the government is spending your tax dollars, the school board is going to be able to buy a desk that was made in Pennsylvania or someplace in the United States. And these American companies end up paying taxes that will go to the schools. It really is a no-brainer.
The best thing a consumer can do is to support an American community by buying something made in that community. Every American needs to know this story. It will be a game-changer for them in their purchasing habits. And a game changer for the American economy.