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Made In America Is A Luxury Label That Will Cost You

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"Loveline" co-host Mike Catherwood is wearing American-made Levi's-brand jeans and shirt. He is attempting to buy only American-made products this year. | Mike Catherwood

To be all-American these days is a luxury proposition. A pair of domestic-made 501 Levi's? Those cost a cool 178 bucks. In cowboy terms, that's a boondoggle.

Mike Catherwood, 33, admits as much. The co-host on the radio advice show "Loveline" has been trying to buy only American-made products as part of a year-long experiment chronicled on his Domestic Journey blog.

"It’s definitely more expensive [to buy American-made products]," Catherwood said, speaking from his Cadillac while stuck in traffic on the way to the airport in Los Angeles. Since he started the experiment last January, his aim has been to draw more attention to American-made goodness.

But instead his experiment underscores the new truth about American-made products: The only people who can afford to buy them are the richest ones. "I am capable of it," he acknowledged, "but I don’t think it’s feasible for everyone to do this."

During an election year, buying all-American takes on new significance as each candidate tries to peg the other as less patriotic using the cars they drive, the foods they eat and their their positions on outsourcing.

But for all the noise about which candidate is the biggest American consumer, another message gets lost: Most Americans can only afford to buy imported goods. The average American household had a median income of barely $50,000 in 2011, according to the latest Census figures released last week. That's just enough to shop at stores like Walmart and Old Navy, emporiums of cheap imported goods.

Take the classic "Born in the USA" outfit: blue jeans, white T-shirt, work boots. The three items, all USA-made, cost $421: domestic-made Levi's 501s ($178), American Apparel white T-shirt ($18) and classic Red Wing work boots ($225). The same outfit with imported goods is far cheaper: Brahma-brand work boots from Walmart ($33), a white Hanes T-shirt ($6) and Gap classic blue jeans ($60) add up to cost less than $100.

"People are fearful that trade is harmful and they only see that its costing us jobs," said Jason Taylor, an economic historian at Central Michigan University. "But these lower prices keep the cost of living down for every American, but it's especially relevant for the lower and middle-class."

Meanwhile, the Made in USA label has undergone a different kind of evolution. If it has traditionally been a symbol of Main Street pride, increasingly it's being used as a chic status symbol for upscale retailers like J.Crew and Gilt Groupe, which have created special marketing around American-made goods, the New York Times reported.

Add to that, dozens of boutique manufacturers and regional designers who use more specific labeling, like "Made in Brooklyn" to create additional caché. These products might feel good, like buying organic lettuce from the green market, but they are niche products. For small-scale manufacturers of clothing, furniture and food, American-made labels have quaint appeal on par with the food industry's subculture of locavorism.

"You can get [economic] utility from where [goods] are coming from," said Taylor. "You can get a warm glow from buying local produce and you believe you are helping a local farmer. It's almost like a new charity."

For a product to qualify for the Made in USA label, all or virtually all of the product has to be made in the United States, according to the Federal Trade Commission. However with globalized trade, the distinction can get murky. American cotton might be used in shirts made overseas; Japanese cars are assembled in the United States.

Catherwood, who doles out relationship advice on the radio, said that some things are impossible to buy like electronics or even gag gifts for a friend's bachelorette party like sex toys. ("That market needs a good American company to make domestic goods!")

He had not investigated American-made condoms. And, as it turns out, the last American condom manufacturer closed down in 2009 after tough price competition from Chinese.

As the radio host reaches the final few months of his experiment, Catherwood said he will continue to focus on buying American goods in the future but has gotten more comfortable with the unavoidable grey zone of sort-of American, where some parts might come from other countries.

"If someone makes a burrito with beef from Mexico, but it’s made here, it's still made in America."

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