Periodically we are urged to “buy American.” It is well nigh impossible.
Twenty years ago, a Minnesota labor leader and I were leaving a meeting with Minnesota’s commissioner of Labor. We were in an elevator headed toward the parking area when I commented to Sandy, a union business agent, that I thought he would not like my choice of automobile.
I had a Japanese model then and we were in the midst of a periodic “buy an American car” campaign led in part by organized labor. Sandy’s response was both revealing and a prediction. “Oh,” he said, “I gave up on that a couple of years ago when I pulled the door off my car and saw the words ‘made in Mexico.’”
I was caught by surprise. Sandy drove a domestic sedan, one, had I thought about it before our conversation, I would have assumed had been built in Detroit. In fact, I had believed that buy American was an either/or proposition. A person could make that either or decision because there was a bright line between the two. Obviously, that was not the case.
Thomas L. Freidman wrote “The World is Flat,” a book released in hard cover in 2005. I read that material and, though I was no longer surprised by the globalization he described I was impressed at its extent as he laid it out.
My take on the book was that he was explaining the spread of ideas through various means, including the Internet, as well as the growing interdependence among businesses and governments across political borders including those of the United States. That, in turn, he explained, has led to an expanded middle class in some of the poorer countries generally bequeathing more comfort and prosperity to growing numbers of people.
I don’t remember any complaint by Friedman that this was paid for by a lower standard of living in the United States.
More recently, Libertarian John Stossel offered a similar analysis. He said he was convinced by a Scandinavian economist that ideas cross pollinate, generating a sort of symbiotic growth. Ideas that are allowed to combine with other ideas can generate new solutions and products. That, Stossel offered, leverages everyone up.
Neither Stossel nor the economist was critical of letting others build products for lower wages. Generally, they said, that allows Americans to purchase them at a lower cost. At the same time, people in poorer countries were earning an income they might not otherwise receive.
The two suggested everyone is working for everyone, in a sense. My wife is working for the coffee grower in South America when she buys coffee, for example.
Eventually, that expansion of income growth creates new markets, according to the economist. As if to echo that analysis the U.S. based maker of certain electronic devices including cell phones just predicted that in a few years China will be that company’s biggest market for some of its products.
I started thinking about this during a meeting in the law offices of one of San Diego’s prominent law firms when I picked up a coaster to use under a soft drink. On the bottom of the coaster were the words “made in China,” a phrase that used to be “made in Japan.”
Last year we bought some small stand alone LED puck lights. Made in China. The packaging said the devices were imported through three different divisions, one in Australia, one in Canada and the third in the United States. The company doing all of the importing is a U.S. business.
Japan’s Toyota builds some of its cars in the United States. U.S. auto makers build some of their cars in Mexico and elsewhere. A placard on the refrigerator we bought a few months ago says it was assembled in the United States, a clear indication that some or all of its parts were manufactured in any number of countries. The company that builds this and other brands of appliances has its global headquarters in Michigan.
We have replaced many of our incandescent light bulbs with low voltage units. Some we obtained through a strait swap out sponsored by our Southern California electric utility. The replacement bulbs we picked up from this U.S. business were made in China.
It appears there aren’t many things made exclusively in America. Perhaps we ought to stop worrying about buying American and instead embrace the economic expansion that helps the poorest improve their condition.
Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.