From left: Donald Jackson, Ernest Tubbs, and Tavi Gargano, of Vocational Guidance Services, in Cleveland, with our made-in-China tools./Photo courtesy VGS.

ABC has a regular feature called “Made in America,” which praises small businesses that make goods here. Advertisers have found that “Made in the USA” is a powerful marketing device. I myself have a feel-good response to anything made in this country.

But what does it really mean? How critical is it? Steve Jobs said point-blank, and to the president, about manufacturing Apple products in China, “Those jobs are gone and they aren’t coming back.” Full stop. (Anyone interested in business and innovation, btw, should read Walter Isaacson’s riveting biography of Jobs.)

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman makes the point regularly that the way to energize the U.S. economy is not by creating legions of workers who can put a glass screen onto an iPad faster and cheaper than they can in China, but rather by encouraging innovation here and raising the level of education (the United States has fallen to an appallingly low level—see the site Dropout Nation).

Friedman also notes that made anywhere, let alone, “made in the USA,” is no longer a meaningful term. “Made in the World,” is the way to think about it, Friedman writes. The model used to be, according an Asian textile CEO, “You sourced in Asia, and you sold in America and Europe. [Now it's] ‘Source everywhere, manufacture everywhere, sell everywhere.’  The whole notion of an ‘export’ is really disappearing.”

As many know, my partner Mac Dalton and I sell numerous cooking tools, and we’re very proud of this. And they are made in China, something that many readers have lamented.

While our tools were made in China—they’re too expensive as it is (we’re working on this), and they’d be prohibitively expensive to make here—they were shipped by the good Clevelanders featured at the top of this post. They work at Vocational Guidance Services on East 55th street, 10 minutes from my house. This 125-year-old company employs not only professional businesspeople, but more importantly the previously unemployable—whether mentally impaired, physically impaired, or socially impaired (impoverished, homeless, just got out of prison) so that they can reenter the workforce. They’re the people who ship our products. We buy shipping materials from U.S. companies. We pay a lawyer and an accountant here in Cleveland. They are shipped by UPS. None of these people would be paid were it not for our being able to make the goods in China, because Dalton-Ruhlman tools wouldn’t exist. The company is tiny and profitable but we haven’t taken a dollar for our considerable efforts, choosing to reinvest and try to grow it.

My book Ruhlman’s Twenty was printed in China. (Back in stock at Amazon, btw, for anyone who wasn’t able to order in the week before Christmas—sold out again, sigh.)

But is the printing in China (most illustrated books are printed outside the U.S.) bad? I was paid by an American publisher, which is profiting from my book, paying the salaries of an American editor and an American designer. The publisher paid an American copy editor to work on the book. All of us are distributing our money in this country. (Interestingly, the book is currently being translated for an Asian audience.)

Donna and I have recently published a cooking app for the iPad called The Book of Schmaltz. It was an innovative and entrepreneurial endeavor that has gotten many glowing responses. It’s a stunning product in my opinion. We hired a great designer in Cleveland, Phong Nguyen. We hired a digital consultant, also in Cleveland. We hired Karen Wise, a professional copyeditor in Boston. And guess what? It turns out that the product is so cool and of such quality, a publisher has bought it to do what they do best, manufacture and distribute hardcover books.

So I think ABC and most of America has it wrong. We shouldn’t be focused on “Made in America” (though I’ve begun conspiring with my cousin Rob to begin manufacturing some tools here, at his plant in Arkansas). I certainly don’t want my kids to grow up to work in a factory stamping out Dalton-Ruhlman spoons. There’s nothing wrong with factory work, but I want my kids to aspire to more. I want them to be creators or innovators or teachers. That is what will make America strong.

Friedman would agree:

America can thrive in this new “Made in the World” world, he says. How? America must empower as many of our workers as possible to participate’ in different links of these global supply chains—either imagining products, designing products, marketing products, orchestrating the supply chain for products, manufacturing high-end products and retailing products. If we get our share, we’ll do fine.

And here’s the good news: “We have a huge natural advantage to compete in this kind of world, if we just get our act together.”

Look at that, there it is again. Cooperating, working together, in the real world, what cooking food got us to do hundreds of thousands of years ago, holds, in part, the secret of our future success.

 

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38 Wonderful responses to “Made in the USA”

  • john phipps

    Cooking in a group is the one of the biggest things in my life that takes the most cooperation. Cooperation to plan, source, prepare, cook, time it all so that the food hits the plates at the same time.

  • Edwin

    I believe manufactoring was/is the backbone of this country’s economy. Made in America, is the largest job creator in a business. Manufacture, package, wharehouse and shipping, is the largest portion of the business’s workforce. And when you create a workforce, you give them buying power and the consumer is the job creator not some wealthy investor. A wealthy capitalist is not in business to create jobs, I hope you continue to conspire with your cousin to do some manufactoring in Arkansas.

  • Madeleine

    Couldn’t agree more- the over simplification that ABCnews resorts to over and over is so tiresome. Many jobs exist as support to foreign made products. The strength of this economy will depend on innovation, collaboration and invention. Now maybe if our government can get their act together we can all continue to move forward and strive to thrive.

  • rockandroller

    I know you’re not much for FB so I’m posting an abbreviated version of my comment on your FB post here as well as I hope you see it. Feel free to delete it if you wish.

    While certainly not on the scale it once was, and certainly it’s not likely things like iPads are going to be made here, I just disagree with a lot in this post, an unusual position for me to be in with you, Michael, since we agree on many things. Citing Americans that pass along and distribute foreign-made goods is the same as saying that chain restaurants are managed and staffed by locals, so dining there is just as good as dining at locally-owned, independent restaurants. Not that they don’t, but it’s just not the same. When you dine at Sawyer’s restaurants, you help him and his family stay here and grow and expand and open more and more restaurants (as he is doing). When you eat at McDonald’s or shop at Wal-Mart, the profits go back to the corporate bigwigs in other states. The same goes for made in USA goods. Yes, many are hard or impossible to find. I shop a lot more online since I have made more of a concerted effort to buy made in the USA products; I can’t just grab things off the shelf at Target. I have to pay more for some things when I do find them. But I’ve found winter hats for my kid, toys for him, clothing for my husband, bath and body products for my sister and mother as Christmas gifts, and many other items. Some people really just want to put in a good day’s work and come home and be with their families and live simply. Everyone does not want to be the boss, or a dreamer or inventor or idea-maker. Some just want to work hard, put in their 8 hours, get enough pay to support a family on and then go home. I think that both types of businesses can exist, the chain/import-dependent and the independent/local/made in the USA type, but much more of a concerted effort could and should be made by many people in at least buying one thing once and awhile that’s made in the USA.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      I don’t disagree with what you say and I love your noting the chain vs indie restaurant (though it’s not quite the same thing). I’m all for Made In America goods, and as I noted hope to create some on my own in the future. The point was that Made In America doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better for America (though it probably is); the point was that its complicated and the media and marketers simplify the situation. And I agree, there’s nothing wrong with an 8 hour day five days a week if that’s what feeds the family and makes you happy. Believe me, I can never stop working, and that is its own kind of cog-in-a-machine grind.

      As ever thanks for you considered response and the time you took to write it.

    • Mantonat

      In the case of Apple (or Ruhlman’s kitchen products), your chain restaurant example works in reverse. The company and its profits are here in the US. The goods may be made abroad, so some wages are paid there, but economic benefits of an American company remain mostly American.

      I honestly don’t care that much about products or companies being American. I want good quality and a good price. Supporting community is one thing; going to a restaurant owned by someone who could be your neighbor is nothing like buying a shirt stitched by someone (who statistically speaking is probably an immigrant) in a factory in another state. It’s a global market; we can’t and should not expect to compete with countries with drastically different standards of living. As Michael wrote, the value of American children is in their ability to innovate, create, and envision, provided their educational years are not wasted.

      I do have concerns about the conditions of workers, here and abroad, and so try to keep a (skeptical) eye on news and information that might indicate abuses. In case anyone thinks that buying American is some automatic guarantee of excellent working conditions and compensation, read a book like “Tomatoland” to see how gross human rights violations are occurring every day in this country in the name of cheap products and corporate profits.

      • Carly

        I have to say I cringed at the “probably an immigrant” line, but I definitely agree with your point that we need to be mindful of what we buy no matter which country it came from. An uncritical “buy American!” mantra is probably naive at best and jingoistic at worst. However, I think that buying American when possible is not entirely disconnected from the concept of supporting my neighbor, even if the person who made the product is in another state. I hope that when I shop that way, I’m sending a tiny little message that yes, I’m willing to pay more for a quality good that provided a quality job–the kind of job I want and the kind of job I want for my neighbors. (Honestly, though, a fair wage and good working conditions are most important to me – often I feel like I’m faced without any really good choice of where to spend.) I spend more on meat because I want to support farmers who are doing things the right way. I’ll do the same, when I can, for everything else. Often, but not always, that leads to buying American.

  • Carly

    Honestly, I don’t know enough about this to say much. But isn’t Apple moving some of their production back here soon? I’ve also read that many appliance manufacturers, etc. have been ramping up domestic production recently. While it certainly makes for good press, I have to think they must be finding some other advantages. Business owners don’t often make major decisions like that out of the goodness of their hearts, and how far does a little good press really go?

    • Michael Ruhlman

      I do recall reading this somewhere. You may well be write and Steve Jobs may well have been wrong (he was, often).

  • Jim

    ABC is way too simplistic but so is Friedman. Cheap and bountiful energy such as natural gas is already bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US. Your overall point is right that manufacturing is only part of the process and not always the most important part. However, manufacturing in the US is still very significant and Friedman’s conventional wisdom is a little behind the times. It was just six years ago that we were supposedly at peak oil yet now by 2030 we’re supposed to surpass Saudi Arabia. Cheap energy is even better than cheap labor when it comes to a lot of manufacturing.

  • dawn

    I had jury duty in Trenton NJ. There was one after another young drug dealers, Trenton is the Capital of New Jersey, in what was a manufacturing city, there now is NO where for these young men and women to work. They are killing each other every week. There is no restaurant business because know one will drive in Trenton after dark. I am all for bringing jobs to these totally improverished cities where 80% rely on the government to support them.

  • Tags

    60 Minutes has a segment called “Truffles:The Most Expensive Food in the World,” showing how unscrupulous importers sell tins that say “Black Winter Truffles, product of France” up front, while on the back in small print it says “tuber indicum”, the Latin name for inferior Chinese truffles. As long as they’re PACKAGED in France, they can put that on the label. In the USA, you don’t even have to specify what variety is in the can. Lobbyists determine what packages are allowed to say, and none of those folks are doing their job on behalf of consumers.

  • James in NZ (a former Economist)

    You’re absolutely right, in most respects. I agree that the routine manufacturing of things like spoons and even iPads really does not belong in the US. But what the US–and other highly advanced economies–could and should be manufacturing is innovative products that are too complex to be assembled by low-skilled workers. However, that assumes that the population is educated enough to do those jobs, and frankly the US education system is failing miserably at that task. With so many undereducated graduates without the skills to do more than ‘drone work’ on an assembly line, the US ends up with people who are unemployable in an advanced economy. If you look at a country like Japan–an advanced economy that has also exported most of its low-skill manufacturing to China, but that also churns out highly educated graduates–there is no call for them to restore manufacturing to the country, since there is no demand for those low-skill jobs (they also don’t have much immigration, so there’s no influx of low-skill workers). As long as the US continues to have low-skill immigration and low-skill graduates, there will continue to be a demand for low-skill jobs, such as the manufacture of your beautiful spoons.

    • Mantonat

      Seems like everyone is concentrating on manufacturing and factory jobs when the fact is that the US has been more of a services economy for at least a couple of decades. Those “drones” are busy processing paperwork and data, working in call centers, providing customer service at shops and stores across the country, providing health care services, etc. There are plenty of non-manufacturing jobs available for people of all education levels in this country.

        • Craigkite

          It would be a good point if it were accurate. There are NOT plenty of jobs of any level in my neck of the woods. Minimum wage jobs with 20 to 30 hour schedules create families that are earning, but rarely seeing each other.

  • Nathan Duran

    Thomas Friedman should not be taken to be an authority on anything let alone quoted.

    • ruhlman

      My dear cousin rob no doubt feels likewise. He sticks to the WSJ op-ed page. Doubt he reads my blog. But we might make tools in arkansas. And we’re seriously good cooking and drinking companions!

  • goofball

    Whenever I read stories like this, I cringe at the utter BS.

    OK, Michael, you make stuff in China because US manufacturing costs too much. I get it. You take a bunch of stuff made by Chinese factory workers, and use the local labor to put that stuff in boxes to deliver to customers. I get that part too.

    You then write a very nice sounding blog posting touting the positive aspects of GLOBALISM, using profitability to justify your business model. OK, I understand.

    But then you go and say the following…

    “I certainly don’t want my kids to grow up to work in a factory stamping out Dalton-Ruhlman spoons. There’s nothing wrong with factory work, but I want my kids to aspire to more. I want them to be creators or innovators or teachers. That is what will make America strong.”

    You don’t want your kids doing factory work? OK fine. Factory work not tremendously inspiring? OK, but how does that compare to putting stuff in boxes and driving delivery trucks? What exactly is so inspiring about that? There are God knows how many people in the US who would love to have a factory job. You of all people know that, living where you do.

    Let’s face it — your businesses operate in a world-wide economy, and are dependent on it for their operation. There’s nothing wrong with that. You make great stuff. But PLEASE, spare the sanctimonious (and to be quite blunt, elitist) BS about how giving up manufacturing makes America strong. It doesn’t. Our unemployment and food stamp issuance rates are proof enough of that.

    • ruhlman

      calling yourself goofball undercuts your comment a little, but thanks, I don’t disagree with you. I only meant to say that the situation is complicated. I do not think giving up ANY jobs makes America strong. Our unemployment rate depresses me, and that we give food stamps that can be redeemed for Coca Cola appalls me. Can we empty out the entire House of Reps and have a do-over?

  • Craigkite

    Michael, you could have easily avoided this backlash by not posting an explanation of the sourcing of your products. You seem to have oversimplified globalism and the need for third world manufactured products to replace American made products. I am from Michigan. Manufacturing used to be big in the Midwest. It is hard for someone to explain to me how this is good. Explaining that it is what it is can be easier to swallow. You have taken the step that we all had to take in the 1970s after Woodstock, and the rent came due. You are growing a business. You need not apologize, but you must understand that some of us know that it is a rationalization to explain it as globalization. I want my grandkids to be happy when they grow up. Whether they work at a convenience store, social work, manufacturing or cooking. Management and labor killed manufacturing in the USA. McDonalds is killing our gastronomy. Let us not pretend that the Golden Arches are a good choice for a meal…thay are JUST a choice.

    • ruhlman

      typing this in cleveland, ohio. I hear you and thank you for taking the time to comment, but I don’t think it’s a rationalization, rather a realization.

  • John

    Great post! Here in Australia we have the same debate about buying Australian made products. This is especially true this time of year when the retail sector does most of it’s business. Looking for Australian, or American, made products to give as gifts is becoming difficult, and sometimes expensive. It doesn’t have to be difficult though. I gave a friend of mine a gift voucher to a local butcher just down the street from me. He has the best range of small farm beef in our town. A local business, selling local produce and employs locals. EASY

    Yeah, I know it doesn’t sound like a typical gift, but the Wagyu beef my friend purchased was fantastic.

    So it doesn’t have to be an electronic gift starting with “i”, there are plenty of local stores and service people who can help you keep your money local.

  • Mattarius

    Some people care if products are made in USA, some don’t. If you care, you can try to buy such products, you can look at product labels, you can google for it, you can visit websites (like http://www.productfrom.com), you can ask friends. Just some effort. If you don’t care, you walk into a store, close your eyes and choose the first served product from the shelf. You decision. But the consequences will be yours.

  • DiggingDogFarm

    What I hate to see is quality “Made in America” products being replaced with inferior Chinese garbage! Swing-A-Way can openers comes to mind, it was a great product when made here in the USA, but now the product is nothing like it used to be. I think that’s why it’s extremely important to support manufacturers of quality products.

  • Terry

    In a world which is increasingly defined by unprecedented flows of labour, capital and goods, surely the key moral issue associated with consumption (ie purchase choices) should not be where something is produced but how it is produced. An excessive concern for the former starts to sound jingoistic. The more cosmopolitan position is to worry about labour conditions and environmental impacts associated with production in the developing world. When I lived in the UK, I’d buy British asparagus because (a) it tastes great and (b) it doesn’t need to be flown in on a jet. I certainly don’t believe a British farmer has a greater right to earn a living than a Peruvian one, and it would never occur to me to make a decision on that basis.

  • Jay

    Ruhlman, my boy….you should really stick to writing about food. You’re showing your hind end with pieces like this blog post.

    “Made in the USA” has great meaning; I don’t expect you to understand that.

    • ruhlman

      I very much understand it, and believe that products made in the USA are extremely important. You, like my cousin, should read the post with less of a knee-jerk response, lest your own hind quarters be shown.

  • Mike

    This is really good post Michael. Obviously a hot button topic. I’m all in support of keeping jobs at home. And like you said with our employment rate that is magnified 10 fold. My frustration from my perspective is that there are so many people out there who won’t take the jobs that are available. But, instead they will stand on a street corner with a money needed and their sad little dog looking for handouts. When right across the street there is a Help Wanted sign hanging in the store or restaurant window. My co-workers and I some years back delivered a casserole dish to one of those men who promptly threw it to ground demanding money. Very frustrating. Again, thanks for the great post!!

  • DJK

    “While our tools were made in China—they’re too expensive as it is (we’re working on this), and they’d be prohibitively expensive to make here…”

    Out of curiosity, do you know exactly how much more they’d have to cost in order to be made here?

    Because when I read something like:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/05/how-much-would-the-ipad-2-cost-if-it-were-made-in-the-us-about-1-140/238508/

    …I find it appalling that our reaction to “A US-made Ipad 2 would cost 57% more” is assumed to be “Well, that’s just unacceptable!” considering what we have to accept in order to get our Ipad 2s for 57% less–outsourced slavery, basically.

    I’m almost certainly in the minority, but given the choice between living in a world of consumerism that runs on slave labor and one in which people have less stuff but that stuff is made by people earning a living wage and are treated with dignity, I know as a spoiled American it’d be a hell of an adjustment, but I’d really like to try the latter.

    • ruhlman

      our products would be double the cost and no one would buy. but that’s largely an issue of quantity; if we were able to make (and therefore sell) large quantities, we could find a way to make them here, something I’d be very proud of.

  • RanchoDeluxe

    My husband declares the Chinese will overtake America by ruining our feet. Try to find shoes made in the US! He finally found some German made, quality boots. Premium price and worth it. We are not wealthy but will have 1 pair of quality instead of a half dozen inferior. If each of us ‘try’ to buy American when we can we help ourselves, our neighbors and our country. Thanks for a thought-provoking forum. I am rooting for the Arkansas contingent.

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