In the global economy, 'Made in the USA' still makes the grade

Amy Wu says America can still compete with China economically; it just needs to focus on its more unconventional success stories

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 January, 2014, 3:18am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 January, 2014, 3:18am

There I was, surrounded by a mountain of jelly beans spiralling down onto a factory conveyor belt in central California. I was on a packed tour of the Jelly Belly factory, whose sweets hit the headlines in the 1980s, thanks to US president Ronald Reagan's penchant for jelly beans.

The private company doesn't disclose its earnings, but given the vast number of flavours (more than 50, not counting those that cater to regional tastes, such as the Hello Kitty Jelly Belly for the Asian market), and the sheer volume of production (up to 46 tonnes a day), it's fair to say that Jelly Belly is an American success story.

It's true that such successes are often overshadowed these days by worries about the country's ho-hum economy. Yes, unemployment remains a problem and the majority of America's textile and furniture manufacturing has long since shifted to China, Vietnam and Cambodia.

But look beyond this one-sided view of economic possibilities and you'll find Jelly Belly, the Hershey's bar, Hollywood movies, Facebook and even higher education are all examples of "Made in the USA" successes. These companies and industries have not only survived but thrived.

Jelly beans, chocolate bars and movies might sound like an unconventional way to define an economy, but that is exactly how the country needs to - so that it can compete with China.

Hershey's third-quarter net sales of US$1.85 billion rose 6.1 per cent from the same quarter a year ago. Hollywood continues to churn out global box office hits, chronicling the escapades of Superman, Iron Man and more recently Anchorman, among others. Will Ferrell and Marvel Comics are strictly Made in the USA.

Some products simply cannot be replicated, including the crisp and delicate Chardonnays I sampled on a recent visit to Napa Valley and top universities such as Harvard and Stanford. And then there are the thousands of successful companies that remain under the radar, including Pepperidge Farm, the producer of the popular "Goldfish" crackers, and the Sun-Maid raisins that tumble straight off the assembly line in Kingsburg, California.

Besides, traditional US manufacturing (cars and appliances) is far from dead. Industrial output grew at a 6.8 per cent annual rate between last October and December, the highest since the second quarter of 2010.

Of course, the success of Made in the USA wouldn't be possible without the Chinese and their fast-growing spending power. This is in evidence on my university campus, where multitudes of students from China avidly consume Big Macs, every Apple product imaginable and, yes, Iron Man movies.

The point is that the US should focus on its competitive edge in products and industries that are churning along, even if they are a bit off the beaten track. America should keep producing the wines, movies and those addictive jelly beans.

Interestingly, at the end of the Jelly Belly tour, the guide pointed out that no jelly bean goes to waste, not even those that don't pass the quality tests. Instead, these undersized or oversized beans are sold as "belly flops", and, at US$10 a bag, they're still a big hit.

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator