Is it unpatriotic for Americans to buy foreign-made products?
Last summer, President Obama said: "I'm convinced we're going to rebuild (the economy) better and stronger than before. And at its heart is going to be three powerful words: Made in America."
You'd think that would be a call to action - for government to encourage domestic manufacturing, and for consumers to aggressively support it.
Yet, at a time when many Americans are easily agitated about immigrants crossing our borders, they seem to care little about the flood of foreign-made products. While they decry the loss of jobs and the flight of manufacturing to cheaper locales overseas, most consumers remain oblivious to distinctions concerning where products are made and by whom.
"You see a whole bunch of Korean cars here in the United States," President Obama noted last month, "and you don't see any American cars in Korea." That's a slight oversimplification, but only slight.
According to the U.S. Commerce Department, for every U.S.-made car exported to Korea, 30 Korean-made cars are exported to the U.S. (this does not count Korean models assembled in the U.S.) In all, roughly half the cars Americans buy each year are manufactured by foreign-owned companies.
No reasonable person would advocate slashing the tires of every Hyundai parked on their block, but why isn't owning a foreign car more stigmatized? Remember back in 2003 when some Americans had snit fits about France's reluctance to support our military effort in Iraq? It prompted a boycott of "french fries," even though the French have nothing to do with our fries.
Many Americans passionately object to telephone "customer service" agents who sound suspiciously as if they're speaking from offshore - in the Philippines, perhaps - but those same consumers drive Korean-made cars without giving it much of a thought.
Is that consumer ambivalence or ignorance?
Part of the problem for well-intentioned Americans when it comes to buying foreign cars - or, for that matter, foreign-made TV sets, computers and numerous other high-ticket items - is that the information about where things are produced is fuzzy. Some Fords, for example, are built in Mexico, using designs created in Japan. At the same time, Hyundai is increasing its production here in the U.S.
Even many iconic American products aren't made here anymore. Barbie, perhaps America's most famous doll, is made by Mattel in China. Levi's jeans are all made overseas. Rawlings, the exclusive supplier of Major League baseballs, manufacturers every single ball in Costa Rica. Laptops, cellphones, television sets, and even light bulbs - none is made in the U.S. anymore.
In fact, it's virtually impossible to buy exclusively American these days, although the situation is shifting slightly. The cost of foreign labor is inching up, while shipping costs from overseas have climbed.
According to Fortune magazine, companies like Illinois-based Caterpillar, the world's largest maker of excavators and bulldozers, is shifting some of its excavator production from abroad to Texas. U.S. furniture maker Sauder is moving production back home from low-wage countries.
Not surprisingly, domestic entrepreneurs are seeking to cash-in on the desire of some Americans to buy U.S.-made products. The All American Clothing Co., in Ohio, for example, boasts that its products are made entirely in America by Americans, using American-made materials.
There are numerous websites, such as Made Here In America, and I Buy US Made, dedicated to identifying American products. ABC's "World News" has done extensive reporting on what's left of American manufacturing.
Not too long ago it would have been viewed as xenophobic for Americans to boycott goods simply because they were made in other countries. Now, along with other elements related to our troubled economy, that's changed.
Ponder this from Moody's Economy.com: If every American spent an extra six cents a week on U.S.-made products, it would create nearly 10,000 new jobs a year.
Peter Funt is a syndicated columnist and former host of "Candid Camera." He can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com