The Phony Frenzy to 'Buy American'

JAMES McCARTNEY

February 05, 1992|By JAMES McCARTNEY

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Of all the phony issues emerging in national politics none is more misleading than the ''Buy American'' frenzy sweeping the country. It is based on a failure to understand the undeniable benefits of the modern global economy, as well as a misguided sense of patriotism.

There are few more certain ways for Americans to shoot themselves in the foot economically and to raise their own cost of living than to try to isolate themselves from foreign pTC competition. And there is no more certain way to inflame international tensions than to encourage Japan bashing.

Bluntly, it is not in the national interest, or in the personal interest of Americans, to subsidize inefficiency in American industries. And there is nothing wrong with buying products made in other countries if they are of superior quality and cheaper.

The ''Buy American'' craze should be described for what it often is. It is an effort by many with vested personal interests to play on the patriotic instincts of Americans to try to preserve what are often poorly managed American industries.

It is in the best interests of American consumers to encourage free trade and open competition across international borders.

The fact is it is often impossible to tell what is American in the inter-related global economy that has developed since World War II. A General Motors car today might well have more Japanese components than a Japanese car.

If you buy a Honda, a Toyota or a Nissan you might think you are buying a Japanese car. In fact, about 40 percent of the cars sold with these nameplates in the United States are made in the United States.

Mitsubishi big-screen televisions are assembled in a factory in Santa Ana, California, from parts that are partly domestic and partly foreign, with a crew of 687 American workers.

Many products with American-sounding labels are actually made foreign countries. The popular Dodge Colt is made in Japan. General Motors has 24 plants in Mexico.

A substantial part of American prosperity has been built on foreign trade. The United States has become an intimate and essential cog in a worldwide system of international trade built on the principle of free trade, largely without discrimination or penalties.

It has been estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the typical American consumer's budget goes to imported products, directly or indirectly.

Writer Alfred Balk made this summary of our inter-dependence in his book, ''The Myth of American Eclipse:''

* Almost a fifth of our industrial output is exported.

* Two of every five acres of farmland are used for export.

* About a third of our corporate profits flow either from exports or investments abroad.

L * A fourth of our business loans come from foreign sources.

* Some 5 million American jobs depend on trade.

It is perfectly understandable why American auto workers, for example, would want to champion the ''Buy American'' idea. They see their own jobs at stake and they want to preserve them.

But it is not the fault of the assembly-line worker that American cars often can't compete against Japanese cars; it is the fault of the managements of the big automobile companies that continued to try to sell oversized gas guzzlers long after it was clear that the Japanese were making smaller, more reliable cars.

We do have legitimate grievances in our trade relations with Japan. They do seek to shut out foreign competitors. The answer, however, is not to bash the Japanese or to refuse to buy their excellent products. The answer is to continue to try to negotiate solutions.

If the quality of products is about the same, yes, why not buy American? That would make sense -- if you can figure out whether a product is made in America. But blindly demanding that folks buy American, regardless, is not the answer. That is folly.

James McCartney is a columnist for Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

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