For a while, it was very en vogue for American retailers and corporations to tout that their products (or some of them) were Made in America. That trend is reportedly coming back into fashion. But "buying American" is not the best way to be a good global citizen.
It's easy to see the surface appeal of "Made in the USA." Patriotism. Supporting the American economy. Keeping manufacturing jobs here on the home front. Etcetera. It is beguiling in the thoughtless sort of way that political slogans are.
There are only two possible reasons for American companies to make a point of telling everyone that their products are Made in America. The first is PR. Patriotic labeling has the potential to pull in customers (or justify higher prices). We can dismiss this as the normal machinations of a for-profit business. The second reason is the one I would like to address: the idea that it is morally good for big American companies to support American manufacturing. That is, the belief that "buying American" is the best way for a company to be a good corporate citizen.
That reason—the meaningful one—does not hold up. It's jingoistic. It assumes that American jobs have more moral value than jobs in, say, Bangladesh. You don't need to be an ethical philosopher to see that that's not the case. Sure, accruing the maximum amount of economic strength to America at the cost of every other nation on earth is a fair position to hold if you're a real live American Exceptionalist who genuinely believes that Americans are the only people on earth whose quality of life has any moral value, but if you genuinely believe that, you need more help than I can provide.
As any neoliberal economist will tell you, globalization—the very force that robbed America of all of its manufacturing jobs in the first place—is effective because it is highly efficient. That is, it moves the jobs to where they are most affordable. It is the most effective system at lowering costs. Its raw economic appeal is relentless and unavoidable.
Unfortunately, globalizations biggest advocates have also failed to reckon with its downside—namely, its tendency to exploit the world's poorest and weakest people for the benefit of multinational corporations and first-world consumers. It's great for Walmart and its customers and suppliers that t-shirts can be made dirt cheap in Bangladesh, but it's not so great for the Bangladeshis who work long hours for minimal pay in horrible conditions to make those t-shirts. To simply say "at least they have a job" is a gross abdication of any concern for basic human rights. And if you are familiar with American jingoism, you know that we never tire of preaching to the rest of the world about our lofty and superior set of moral values, which make us such a great country.
"Buying American" is too simplistic. But buying into the current model of globalization is too horrific. There is, however, a third choice. An international minimum wage would allow us to maintain some of the economic efficiency gains of globalized manufacturing, while ensuring that it doesn't completely exploit the workers who do the manufacturing. (Yes, it could be indexed to cost of living in various countries; and yes, it could be unilaterally imposed by America, just by requiring companies who want to sell their products here to maintain certain standards.)
The world is full of very poor people who need jobs. The fact that they are very poor and need jobs does not mean that we are abdicated from the basic sort of ethical protections we demand when we are working in our own jobs. Child labor and slavery were both very economically compelling too, but we eventually decided we couldn't stomach them. This is no different.
[Photo of the mother of a Bangladeshi garment worker killed in a building collapse: AP]