Domestic Matters

22 11 2010

Back in 1979, when I bought my first car (a Toyota Corolla), I was about to become a junior at Anderson University in Indiana. At that time, Anderson was known far and wide as a General Motors town. The 70s had been glorious years for GM, but by the end of the decade, the economy had turned south, and Japanese cars had begun to make serious inroads in the US market.

Did I say that my first car was a Toyota?

Being a GM town, it was necessarily very pro-union. I had the good fortune (I’m being facetious) of living within a mile of the union hall, both when I lived in the dorm that junior year, and then in an off-campus apartment my senior year.

And I lived in fear that I would waken one day to find my little blue Corolla had its windows busted out by a disgruntled (and unemployed) auto worker.

I suppose that when the unemployment rate is over 20%, you want to pin the blame on anything (and anyone) you can. I was the bad guy. Oh, and I forgot to mention that my Dad was actually a career GM employee in Chicagoland, yet fully endorsed my purchase. He, in fact, went on to buy three Toyotas himself. All this at a time when “Buy American” was a powerful sentiment, often used by marketers to tout their domestic manufacture, as well as a guide for consumers to buy locally.

But as the years have elapsed, the notion of buying American has lost much of its luster. It sold well in the late-70s because many of the adults had served in foreign wars (notably WWII), so hatred for Japan-anything was an easy sell. That same sentiment, though, just doesn’t seem to resonate like it once did.

As reported in today’s USA Today Snapshot, there are huge generational differences, with America’s oldest persons being the most likely to be influenced by ads that promote American manufacturing. The younger you are, the less likely this message rings home.

Having been a free market economist since my college days (and my double major in Economics and Marketing), I have never been one to fall for guilt trips or economic jingoism, and I resent any protectionist laws that seek to limit our global access to goods and services. As one of my MBA Marketing profs once said, “Protectionism is the hallmark of a developing economy.”

Ouch.

While it is always nice to be able to purchase things both made and sold near to home, sometimes the value proposition simply does not add up. Yes, it may be very noble, even patriotic, to spend one’s money in a way that benefits American (or local) businesses, but we also need to look after our own economic self-interests.

To be honest, had it not been for those WWII skirmishes with Japan, I doubt we would have ever had such strong Buy American sentiments in the first place.

But much water has passed beneath the economic bridge, and now Japanese cars (and many other products) are mainstays in our economy. They are more likely than not to even be manufactured in US plants. And they have proven themselves through the years to be reliable products, and worthy of our purchase.

I also think that education has shown us that we live in a global village. Thomas Friedman’s landmark 2004 The World Is Flat spelled this out in amazing clarity. Silos must come down, if they have not done so already. Manufacturing will always seek out (and find) the low-cost labor and material inputs, whether they be in Bangor or Bangalore. And thanks to the internet, we can shop 24 hours a day from Anaheim to Albany (and Amarillo in between).

Thus, I am not surprised at the numbers quoted therein. It would likely take a full frontal assault, much like Pearl Harbor, for America’s young adults to develop a hatred for another country like that which the Greatest Generation had for Japan.

As for me, my car was never bashed. I always tried to park it under a street light, and I prayed hard. Real hard. Because I just couldn’t stomach the thought of caving into someone who couldn’t compete in the global economy. Even if it meant he lost his job.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, and I stake my claim that being an American means being free to purchase as I see fit. Free from guilt. Free from intimidation. Free to choose.

Dr “Wish I Still Had That Corolla” Gerlich

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