Why Don’t We "Buy American?"

America’s trade deficit underlies a host of headlines. We continue to send payment for fossil fuels to countries that use it to finance people who kill our soldiers. We borrow trillions from China, so that we can pay them for more consumer goods.

We export our manufacturing jobs, despite our hand-wringing over the disappearance of the American middle-class, because we continue to buy the cheapest least expensive option, regardless of who made it. Do people in North Carolina buy Vietnamese t-shirts, even though they wiped out their textile industry? Probably, or they wouldn’t have t-shirts. Do contractors buy Chinese steel for those new buildings with huge American flags on them? Of course. Without the cheap steel they couldn’t win a bid.

The two great exporters among the advanced economies, Japan and Germany, don’t pay penurious wages. They continue to foster thriving manufacturing sectors that compete globally. How can they do it when we can’t?

One reason is their strong consumer loyalty to domestic production. While all auto makers have gone global, in Japan most people still drive Japanese cars, and in Germany they drive German. Both nations’ cars gained a reputation for quality by competing in difficult domestic markets. When they went global, they brought with them highly refined products. I remember buying American cars in the 70’s and 80″s, when it was an accepted practice to bring the car back to the dealer after 600 miles to fix the rattles, paint drips, and malfunctioning accessories. Those were not acceptable flaws in German and Japanese cars, and when they were made available to us, we snapped them up.

But it isn’t just quality and price that makes American consumers “disloyal” to American products. It is who we are. As a nation of immigrants, we have never developed a homogeneous “us against them” worldview.

Ask me my nationality (at least while I am traveling within this country), and I will answer “Italian.” Ask me where I am from, and I’ll answer “Texas.” That is despite the fact that I am fifth generation American, was raised in New Jersey, and that my children were born in California. Does that make me less American? Of course not. That is what it means to be an American. We are all aware of our connections beyond our country. In fact, most of us have never seen most of our own country.

Germans are very German. They are one ethnicity. They mostly look similar, not counting minor variances in coloring and body type. A Palestinian or Indian or Turk in Germany stands out as “not one of us.” Many are never eligible for citizenship.

In Japan it is even more pronounced. Worried about aging issues, the Japanese government recently tried to encourage immigration from the substantial Japanese community in Brazil, with the logic that those people were, at least physically, Japanese. It was a miserable failure. They weren’t Japanese enough.

But in America we happily adopt as a national uniform clothing invented by a German immigrant (Levi’s) put our money in an institution founded by an Italian immigrant (Bank of America) and read this blog courtesy of a company co-founded by a Russian immigrant (Google.) We aren’t hard-wired to look at nationality or ethnicity before anything else, because doing so would be contrary to who we are.

In Europe and Japan they are facing massive problems with an ageing population. They have no mechanisms to address immigration, and immigration is an absolute necessity if they are to grow their economies with new job creation. We are the only “old” economy with a birthrate high enough to sustain growth.

Of course, we can’t do it by continuing to sink into debt. I always thought that the economic model that said Americans would thrive simply by “doing things” for each other was a crock.We need to produce something that other people want to buy. The problem isn’t that we don’t buy enough American goods. It’s that the rest of the world doesn’t. We shouldn’t blame them for the areas where we can’t compete. It isn’t their fault. They are simply following the standards we created.

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