Sensation and hyperbole have become staples of the mainstream media, as they struggle to compete for an American attention span increasingly committed to blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Even the venerable ABC World News has decided to indulge its worst instincts by airing—every night this week—a reality-based series called "Made in America." Caveat Emptor: ABC is selling dangerous, nationalistic propaganda.
The gist of the series is that Americans don’t buy many U.S.-made products anymore and are therefore responsible for the persistent and relatively high rate of unemployment in the country. Last night’s episode featured a family that couldn’t find a single item in their home that was manufactured in the United States. To accentuate the point, the family takes a day trip, while movers are brought in to rid the house of all foreign-made items. Of course, at the end of the day, the family returns to a cavernous echo chamber, where they are amazed and ashamed by how much they’ve contributed to the hardships of their unemployed fellow citizens. By spending a little more on U.S.-made products, the storyline goes, Americans can put their countrymen back to work.
Here’s part of the series description from the ABC World News website:
In the coming weeks, "ABC World News with Diane Sawyer" is launching a groundbreaking series, "Made in America," focusing on American manufacturing and our economy.
The facts show that our nation is addicted to imports. In 1960, foreign goods made up just 8 percent of Americans' purchases. Today, nearly 60 percent of everything we buy is made overseas.
On air and online, we'll tackle the key questions: Is buying American-made more expensive? What staples are no longer manufactured in the U.S. at all? And what difference would it make if everyone promised to buy more American-made product?
There's no question that manufacturing still has a major impact on our economy and on the nation's workforce. The United States has fewer manufacturing jobs now than we did in 1941, the same year as the attack on Pearl Harbor, but if every American spent an extra $3.33 on U.S.-made goods, it would create almost 10,000 new jobs in this country.
Ugh. Where to begin? Back in the "golden age" of 1960, when imports were oddities to marvel over in a disdainful way, the per-capita U.S. income was $2,914. In 2009, with imports ubiquitous, per-capita income was $46,411. (Economic Report of the President, 2010, Tables B-1 and B-34). In real, inflation-adjusted terms, even with a U.S. population increase from 181 million to 307 million, per-capita incomes in 2009 were almost triple what they were in 1960 ($42,277 vs. $15,669 in 2005 dollars—ERP, 2010, Tables B-2 and B-34). Oh, if only we could replicate the relative poverty, the limited consumer choices, the inefficient production processes, the massive trade barriers that compelled Americans to buy American, and the uneconomic work rules and wages commanded by once-powerful private sector labor unions. In 1960, before real economic liberalization spawned cultural and social liberalization, Diane Sawyer would never have dreamed of being a network news anchor, if she even dared to entertain the concept of working outside of the home. How can she pine for such an era?
It’s frustrating that so much research refuting the myth of manufacturing decline and supporting the conclusion that U.S. manufacturing is thriving—and is in fact leading the world in terms of value of output—is simply neglected by a media that is more committed to scaring than informing. Today Americans are less likely to find in their homes products manufactured in the United States because U.S. manufacturers have moved on to producing higher value products. American manufacturing isn’t focused on products that consumers find in retail stores, like furniture, hand tools, sporting goods, flatware, draperies, carpeting and clothes. American factories produce more value than any other country’s factories by focusing on producing the highest value products: pharmaceuticals, chemicals, airplanes, sophisticated componentry, technical textiles, and other items often sold directly to other businesses.
I and others have been making these points for several years, as U.S. manufacturing continues to thrive in every metric…except employment. Manufacturing employment peaked in 1979 and has been on a downward trajectory ever since. But that is the point that eludes ABC and everyone else who thinks U.S. manufacturing’s best days are in the past. Making more with less is the goal! That’s how an economy grows! The political imperative of "putting people back to work" regardless of the economic value of that work--remember the so-called stimulus?-- spits in the face of economics. The fact that Americans are unemployed speaks to a mismatch of skills demanded and skills available, as well as to a business and regulatory environment that dissuades investment and hiring.
ABC’s proposition that Americans would support 10,000 new jobs by spending just $3.33 more (per year?) on U.S.-made goods obviously fails to consider the jobs lost by switching from imports to domestic or switching from savings (which is just money used for investment, which already supports jobs) to spending. Depriving foreigners of U.S. dollars just deprives U.S. producers of export sales.
There is so much that is wrong about the theme and tone of ABC’s odyssey, from its assumption that Americans are gullible idiots to its reckless nationalism. So, here's my plan. Unless and until ABC agrees to provide some balance and air a series devoted to the truth that U.S. manufacturing is thriving in a globally interdependent economy, my family (which includes big Disney fans) and I will not watch another ABC show nor will we purchase a single product or service from ABC’s parent company, Disney. That, and the fact that most products sold in Disney stores are made in China, should give Disney extra cause to reconsider ABC's dangerous crusade.