The standard lament about the supposed demise of American potential leans heavily on the notion that we don't make anything here anymore. Factories have been dismantled and shipped to faraway lands where workers earn less in a week than many of us squander on a morning cup of coffee. Skilled hands that once harnessed machinery to create useful products now push buttons to toast hamburger buns or fill out forms for unemployment insurance.
Too often, the necessary conversation about the jobs crisis winds up furthering the bogus idea that Americans are now the victims of globalization -- a word that once seemed to describe how Disney, Coca-Cola and McDonald's were destined to turn the planet into one vast Orange County, but now apparently means we are doomed to expanding joblessness as work gets shipped overseas.
Christian Mouritzen has grown so tired of this talk that he and his friends have created a business that aims to squelch it while promoting a less appreciated reality: Lots of enterprising, innovative companies still make products in the United States and are fully capable of thriving in a global economy, generating new jobs in the process.
His new venture, the American Brand Project, aims to put the spotlight on such companies while serving as an e-commerce marketplace for their wares, taking a cut of the resulting transactions. On its website -- now up in beta version and set for a full launch in the fall -- the project lays out the stories of the companies whose products it sells, and extends a special offer for each. It rates companies on their quotient of American-ness, awarding points for whether they are headquartered in the United States, how much of their revenue remains here, how many of their raw materials are sourced domestically, and the degree to which they rely on American labor. In a bid to engage the social nature of the Internet, the site invites public nomination of companies that ought to be included.
Whether this one business succeeds or fails, it is part of something hopeful, a gathering attack against the dysfunction and despair that sometimes seems to have seized the national character. Washington is not capable of fashioning a credible solution to the employment crisis, not with the politicians fully engaged in the grotesque pageantry of the campaign -- an exercise largely removed from real problems. But that shouldn't mean that the rest of us resign ourselves to inaction in the face of high unemployment and continued downward mobility.
One new online business is hardly going to fix everything, but its existence highlights how creative, entrepreneurial people can take matters into their hands to pursue solutions to basic economic problems.
Mouritzen, 48, the company's president and chief operating officer, says the idea for American Brand Project grew out of conversations he had with four friends during which they bemoaned how many people were without work. Most had spent their careers in digital marketing, and they figured they could direct these skills toward boosting the prospects of companies that were creating products of genuine value at home, and were poised to hire American workers.
But who fit that description? Even the founders had their doubts.
"We had the perception, like many others, that quality products really were not manufactured in the U.S. anymore," Mouritzen told me. "Luckily, we were proven severely wrong. As we started looking around, we found lots of great companies producing great products, but many of them were not telling their stories very well."
Among these they found Hanky Panky, a New York City-based intimate apparel company that relies on a network of American contractors to produce its wares. Though much of the lingerie industry has shifted overseas in recent decades, Hanky Panky has stayed here, seeing an American base as a competitive advantage.
"We are American made and very proud of it," says Lida Orzeck, 65, the company's CEO, who co-founded the business 35 years ago with a designer friend. "We like having the business here, where we can keep a very close eye on things and where we know that everything is being lawfully done, and we're keeping our population employed and not causing a gigantic carbon footprint because of all the energy expended sending goods around the world."
Hanky Panky is a perfect example of the sort risk-embracing, imaginative entrepreneurial spirit that has made American business great, and that sometimes seems to have gotten lost amid the financial hocus pocus that has dominated our version of capitalism in more recent times.
In 1977, a designer friend gave Orzeck a birthday present -- a bra and bikini underwear she had fashioned out of cotton handkerchiefs. Both women liked the look of this invention so much that they launched a business to make such products. That year they delivered their first order -- twelve dozen sets -- to the loading dock at the Lord & Taylor department store in Manhattan.
With just the two of them overseeing the operation, they sold about $200,000 worth of goods that first year, Orzeck says. Today, they employ 150 people, plus contract manufacturers in Queens, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. They ship their products worldwide and boast estimated annual revenues of $50 million.
Many companies that have grown to such size have followed the logic of cost reduction on a trail that tends to terminate in China, Mexico or India. Orzeck says she and her partner have never been tempted to go that route.
"Not for a second," Orzeck says. "In the long run, that's not a savings to us. We visit our factories every single day. We know what's going on. We can make custom designs for people. We're here. Our designers can talk to buyers directly."
Here is a point that cannot be emphasized enough as American companies struggle to adapt to global commerce: If Hanky Panky were to shift production to Asia, it would probably reduce its production costs, but at the expense of something vital: its direct relationships with customers and its ability to customize orders quickly. It would be jumping into competition with the goliaths of the apparel industry, players who tend to compete on scale and low prices, making goods that are essentially commodities -- a contest in which Hanky Panky has few advantages.
Instead, the company is doing what American manufacturers writ large must do -- thinking deeply about their core strengths and exploiting them, rather than willy-nilly chasing after lower costs abroad.
When I first heard about American Brand Project, I confess to a knee-jerk aversion. I assumed that this was either a corporate public relations exercise -- draping the usual products in the flag -- or a charitable exercise served up as a business, asking Americans to buy goods not on the basis of quality but through an appeal to patriotism.
These sorts of appeals may be well intentioned, but they offer no long-term fix to our ills. Whether we like it or not, our companies are now in direct competition with rivals on every shore. They will succeed and ultimately create jobs for American workers if they manage to deliver goods and services that people and businesses actually want and need.
Mouritzen is not the sort of guy who would have a substandard American car just because it was made in the Rust Belt. Born in Copenhagen, he came to the States in the early 1990s to get an MBA. What he is launching now is unsentimentally about dollars and cents. It is merely an e-commerce venture with a twist.
But that twist is useful.
Much of the public harbors a deep distrust of American business, and with good reason. Huge companies have racked up profits for shareholders while laying off workers and cutting benefits, sticking taxpayers with the costs of health care and food stamps.
But business is nonetheless our way out of the hole we are in. If national fortunes are to be revived, private businesses will ultimately write the paychecks. The key is to focus on strength, identify the companies that are doing it right and encourage their growth.
Follow Peter S. Goodman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/petersgoodman