After years of decline, American manufacturing has picked up consistently for the past four months. Many economists believe that the long-term health of the American economy depends in significant part on the revitalization of our manufacturing sector. This is particularly true because, again in the case of automobiles, the oversized, sub-par, gas-guzzlers that were produced by Detroit for more than a decade gave American cars–and American manufacturers as a whole–a very well-deserved bad name. Many American companies became so fat, dumb and happy in the post-World War II era that they routinely produced unreliable products of very low quality, and thus a generation or two of consumers around the world perceived American goods to be inferior to those produced abroad. Today, our products have improved dramatically but the perception lingers, and we all need to do something about that.
Moreover, despite the fact that iPhones are made in China and Toyota Highlanders are made in the valleys south of the Mason Dixon line, buying American still has a salutary effect. Unfortunately, America in recent decades has been exporting the wrong things–like jobs and currency. When you buy a product from an American company, even if that product is manufactured partially or completely overseas, the profits are much more likely to stay here, in the form of employee bonuses, increased spending on marketing through US media, and so on.
Forgetting for the moment the "get government out of our lives crowd," even as a former consumer regulator I accept the concept that the ultimate guardian of the consumer is the consumer; and doubtless, consumer protection begins at home. We have the greatest interest in protecting our own economic well-being and are in the best-position to protect it. As a consumer, we owe it to ourselves to become better informed. Financial illiteracy damn near destroyed us in the past few years, and as consumers, we owe it to ourselves to get better organized.
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Happily, and finally, the US government is stepping up its efforts to help consumers know more about what they need to know. An important goal of National Consumer Protection Week is to promote better consumer education and awareness, and the newly minted Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a strong mandate to ensure that Americans become more financially literate as quickly as possible. This doesn't just mean reading all the disclosures before signing on the dotted line. It means considering the ramifications of your purchase before making it. If you're being offered more house than you can afford at a deal that only make sense because you "will" be able sell it off to the next guy two years later… you know that's wrong. It's wrong for you and it's wrong for society to mint an economy out of such thin dreams.
Even if all corporations were in perfect compliance and had the most clear and comprehensive disclosures in the world, if you don't read them, what good are they? This is not about individual responsibility versus corporate responsibility, this is individual responsibility AND corporate responsibility.
Sooner or later, people will figure out that in a capitalist system, information and transparency are as valuable if not more valuable than all the regulation of business that Washington can produce. There is a middle ground. You can have intelligent regulation and economic innovation by forcing bad players away from the table. National Consumer Protection Week starts with you. What will you buy?
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.