To say that 2009 has been a challenging year is a wrenching understatement, with high levels of unemployment, pay cuts, and reduced hours in just about every industry. The news is full of doom and gloom regarding the job market, affecting everyone from established workers to fresh college graduates whose student loan payments are now coming due. Will 2010 be any better? We can only hope so. Promising signs include a partial stock-market rally and a slightly improved real estate market, though employment still lags behind in our so-called recovery.

Through recent conversations with you — our dear readers — we know that many of you share these burdens and concerns about the future of U.S. economic health, and our corresponding standard of living. Many of you hold government policies accountable for our current state, while others place the blame on U.S. consumers who want cheap goods above all else. Following are a few of the comments we've heard lately:

“The notion that we can sustain purchasing at Chinese-style prices while continuing to receive American-style salaries is fundamentally flawed. We actually do (or at least we did) have something that the Chinese aren't good at producing: intellectual property. But our government seems content to let them steal that, while we buy stuff for unsustainably low prices,” writes a senior product engineer at one of our country's largest window manufacturers.

Another loyal reader writes, “I have been in manufacture and design engineering for almost 40 years in Canada. During that time, I have seen a lot of changes for the worse with American firms outsourcing parts manufacture to offshore countries, with the result being junk. It is very sad that the once-proud American-manufactured machine tool, which would last a lifetime when cared for, is now worn out before one year is over. There is no quality control. In contrast, properly made tools, whether big or small, are expensive; but with that expense comes the guarantees that someone is gainfully employed, does a good job, has pride in the product — and the tool is checked for workability and completeness. America should forget free trade and manufacture for America first, and then sell products abroad.”

Even more disturbing are thoughts recently expressed by Emerson Electric Company's CEO, David Farr. As reported in a November Bloomberg News article, Farr (whose 2008 compensation was $6.85 million) says that the U.S. government is harming manufacturers with taxes and regulation, and so his company will “continue to focus on growth overseas … and keep expanding in emerging markets, which represented 32% of revenue in 2009.” Companies will create jobs in India and China, “places where people want the products and where the governments welcome you to actually do something,” according to Farr. He also noted that Emerson employs about 125,000 people worldwide and has eliminated more than 20,000 jobs since the end of 2008 to lower expenses. “What do you think I am going to do? I'm not going to hire anybody in the United States. I'm moving. They are doing everything possible to destroy jobs.” Wow: Talk about a no-confidence vote on our government.

Is there anything individuals can do to help get our economy back on track? Because economic health is so closely tied to consumer spending, I believe that there is. If we all buy American-made products whenever possible, it would certainly make a difference. The Internet makes it easier than ever to find out what's available by country of origin. A good site I discovered recently is www.stillmadeinusa.com, which lists several categories of goods with links to specific companies that still manufacture in the U.S. I plan to use this site for holiday shopping and future purchases. Buying from local shops is another way to support our economy and keep jobs here.

On a lighter note, another MSD reader shares how he's taking matters into his own hands: “The only American-made items I've found at any stores lately are some cast-iron skillets. At the risk of looking crazy, I picked up two of them and right there in the store, clanged them together and shouted ‘Made in USA!’ People just shrugged and kept buying their usual Chinese stuff.”

It's not a bad approach. Perhaps we can follow this gentleman's lead this holiday season — by forgoing foreign-made noisemakers come New Year's Eve, and switching to U.S. cast iron for our merrymaking. However you celebrate, we wish you an enjoyable holiday season and a bright 2010.