Made and Not Made in America

When The Race to the Bottom Costs Lives

What’s happening is terrible and we all feel a bit helpless. We are staying home, trying to stay healthy, doing our best to support local brands and restaurants. We are struggling to keep our own businesses and livelihoods afloat while we are taking care of our families. These are wild and difficult times indeed. I feel for the people who have to go to work every day and risk their health to help other Americans. I feel for everyone that has been upended by this. I feel for the families who have lost loved ones. This is a rare event of a magnitude almost unimaginable.

The news is tough to read. I limit myself to certain trusted publications — The New York Times, The Atlantic, NBC News, WIRED, the LA Times and the Washington Post. I don’t read the Daily Mail because I am attempting to remain sane and there’s only so much wine in this house. It hasn’t been all bad news, there are encouraging things happening. Stories of selflessness from doctors and nurses and of communities coming together. It has been great to see Ford Motor start making Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and ventilators. Equally amazing to see the work that clothing brands are doing to rally to make (non-medical) masks for essential workers and high-risk individuals. Hertling was one of the first companies (in America) that I noticed which had re-purposed its factory to make masks to fight this pandemic. There are a lot of other brands all over the U.S. who are doing the same — including Reformation, the company my wife works for. In a small way, it makes me proud to be a part of an industry like fashion that can be fickle and destructive to the environment. I’m proud of the companies stepping up to help. I’m proud of the front line medical workers who risk their lives (and those of their families) to help us when we are our most vulnerable. These are the people who make me proud to be an American.

What doesn’t make me proud is the way our leaders in Washington, the Federal government and corporate America have yet again failed us.

I know this is not really the basis for this site or the reason anyone would come here, but I see a clear connection between what it means to make jeans in America and what it means to make the critical PPE and medical equipment when we need it. It’s not just about the cost of goods, it’s about the loss of important capabilities when they are most important. It’s about self-sufficiency and having the power to create things when we need it – not to depend on a foreign government to help us.

This story in the NYT about masks really alarmed me. China has basically nationalized a 3M factory (and others) and is not allowing the companies to export masks. Then I read this story in the Washington Post and I was furious. I am mad that people were warned and failed to do anything. I am pissed off that many experts have predicted this was going to happen, but the U.S. Government didn’t take it seriously. Very specifically I’m pissed off that everything is outsourced in the name of cost savings and profit. Deploying the Defense Production Act doesn’t mean much if it the components are made in China or if it takes 6 months to get our ridged manufacturing sector to spool up. It’s ridiculous that the medical system in America operates the way it does and that everything has become a profit center – including PPE. There are millions of Americans who need jobs and could be making this stuff. Even if the government was subsidising the production of PPE in non-pandemic times it would save money in the long haul and more importantly it would save lives. It would also decrease our dependency on other countries in times of emergency.

Non-medical grade masks being made at Hertling in Brooklyn.

It seems obvious to me that the Berry Amendment should be extended to include critical pandemic supplies like N95 masks, ventilators, and other PPE. Or there should be a domestic health law like the Berry Amendment for critical health equipment. One of the craziest aspects of this crisis for billions of people all over the world is the fact that the origin of the virus in Wuhan is also the place where the vast majority of the world’s PPE is manufactured.

Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but think about the hidden costs of outsourcing that took place in this very specific case of PPE. Think about the hidden cost of the failure of leadership was too? Cheap PPE made in Wuhan isn’t so cheap after all. 

While there are many reasons to be sad, angry or alarmed, there are a lot of people in the world doing amazing, selfless things. Among the many good places to support, perhaps consider the A Million Masks fundraiser here for healthcare workers or my sister-in-law’s fundraising at UCLA Medicine which can be supported here.

Comments on “Made and Not Made in America

    Chris on March 27, 2020 7:25 PM:

    Ahh the corporate raiders of the past…short-term gains over long-term investing for the American worker. Is there any doubt why fewer than one in five Americans trust business leaders to tell the truth? Sadly I am afraid the great majority of our US manufacturing infrastructure was sold off years ago. If this was the 1940’s we could “spool up” in no time…now we are literally sitting on our hands while our doctors and nurses are going into battle without their vital PPE. If this doesn’t motivate the US to make a change for the future nothing will. The old phrase, “American know how” which has been teetering on the verge of extinction may have just got a needed kick in the ass. Thanks for the post MW. Stories like these will only help galvanize each of us to cheer on US manufacturing so that next time we are damn well prepared.

    Shawn Boyd on March 27, 2020 7:36 PM:

    So well said!

    Richard Steffy on March 27, 2020 7:52 PM:

    This very issue was the topic at dinner tonight. A repsonsible leader (of a family or a nation) buys insurance. Premiums are paid with the hope of never needing to submit a claim. How many Americans buy insurance or put money away for retirement? A leader stays prepared, because catastrophes send no warning. The irony here being that we all knew this was coming months in advance. Our national paycheck to paycheck mentality took a serious hit in 2008, but the lesson was not learned. Now, the nation as we know it will be lucky to survive. Hopefully we will fund public health going forward, since without a safe public square, our nation grinds to a very painful halt.

    WES WP on March 27, 2020 11:31 PM:

    Michael –
    This is the best piece you have written by far (that I’ve read). You distilled everything I was thinking and feeling (and feeling is the key here) into a coherent, powerful, well-controlled piece that speaks to the state of a failed government, a country that should, and could, do better (and still may).

    You’re right to feel some pride that your wife is contributing to this “war effort.” I hope that your business endeavors survive this indefinite period, and that you and your family remain healthy.

    I’ve been critical of two of your articles in the past, and it seems petty (of me) in retrospect. Those were simpler times when most of our cares and fears were self-created, and we had the luxury of sniping at others in a “safe” world — one we could move through without a care, the vague threat of mass shootings happening somewhere else, or the abstract possibility of a terrorist attack impacting another city, another place, or another country – but not me.

    The restaurant industry of our major cities will surely be decimated. Small (or medium) sized men’s shops will be wiped off the map (in many instances). And the life we’ve taken for granted will probably not return.

    And that our government could have done so much more to mitigate this – but didn’t – is a kind of American shame we now must carry forward with us…and those fortunate enough to survive will need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Bill Gates’ TED Talk, years ago, predicted this moment all too well.

    Thanks for writing this,

    TBD on March 28, 2020 1:52 AM:

    I know this is not really the basis for this site or the reason anyone would come here, but I see a clear connection between what it means to make jeans in America and what it means to make the critical PPE and medical equipment when we need it.

    Sometimes political issues force themselves on us, and you’ve handled this one nicely. We do need to recognize the mistakes, look forward, and start fixing them. ‘Made in America’ is a pretty good way to start.

    Parisian Survivor on March 28, 2020 6:02 AM:

    Hello American friends

    Writing from Paris, France. The situation is the same here. The last factory producing medical oxygen in Europe (it was in France) was closed at the end of 2019. The workers from that factory offered to resume production. No answer from the French government. After that shit is over we will need to completely change the way our lives are ruled by these idiots.
    Be safe.

    Kyle Rancourt on March 28, 2020 11:29 AM:

    All you need to know about where our federal government’s priorities lie in regard to domestic manufacturing is that the vast majority of US military goods are required to be manufactured in the US and virtually nothing else is.

    Bucky9 on March 30, 2020 12:36 PM:

    I couldn’t agree more. Bring back Made in the U.S.A. The reason? How are your profits looking now?

    Michael Williams on March 30, 2020 2:48 PM:

    A reader sent this to me on IG, thought it is worth a read:

    Trousers on April 3, 2020 9:54 AM:

    I think you could safely add The Guardian to your list of trusted sources. Sometimes it’s so ‘woke’ as to be unbearable but generally it’s restrained in its coverage and they employ half decent journalists and it provides a rare left wing perspective.

    Michael Garnsey on April 7, 2020 1:10 PM:

    Interesting issue- heard a discussion on talk radio about the lone U.S. manufacturer and his perspective. A good read if you have a minute.

    …In an interview, Bowen said he could make 1 million masks a day if he ran his machines around the clock, a huge quantity for his firm but an amount that would barely make a dent in global demand. He’s hesitant, however, to ramp up production at the facility outside Fort Worth, scarred by the boom-bust mess that occurred after the swine flu pandemic in 2009.

    Facing a potential pandemic, U.S. government officials are considering buying more products from domestic sources, such as Bowen’s firm, to meet increased demand, according to an industry source who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share ongoing discussions.

    That may not be good enough for Bowen.

    “A lack of planning on their part is not an emergency on my part,” Bowen said. “They had their chance. I told them over and over.”

    atfinln on April 8, 2020 6:16 PM:

    The Free Market is not always Free. Whilst International Trade is a two street, a Nation should never forget about Security of Supply. Most of the West outsourced their low margin manufacturing to China. In a truly free Market, the RMB would have appreciated vs the USD and other free floating currencies thus making it difficult for them to maintain their position. We need to bring back at least 50% of our Supply Chain. We need to automate with Robotics low margin items and establish an ESG standard for our products, labor (American Workers) and our Environment.

    Cobey Williamson on April 12, 2020 9:54 AM:

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