Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 November 2009

Survivor’s Guilt and What to Do about It


[For brief comment on the President’s famous bow, click here.]

Having come through this economic crisis relatively unscathed, I feel a certain ambivalence. Sometimes I ignore the leading role that dumb luck played and attribute my success to brains and skill. Sometimes I feel survivor’s guilt.

Many good people are suffering through no fault of their own. Leading pundit Bob Herbert constantly reminds us (1, 2 and 3), of the plight of the jobless and foreclosed. Today he just published another column, on the wasteland that Detroit has become.

With 27 million of us jobless or underemployed and nearly 50 million in “food insecurity”—the euphemism du jour for hunger born of poverty—there’s a lot of pain out there. What decent person with a job, a home, and good prospects for retirement doesn’t mumble, at least now and then, “there but for the grace of God go I”?

If you share this survivor’s guilt, there’s something you can do, all by yourself. You can buy American and give your fellow Americans jobs.

I’m on record on this blog as never having bought a new American car. Before I bought my first new car in 1973, I test drove the Chevrolet Vega. It looked and sounded like something from a Soviet factory. The managers who approved it for production should be permanent members of the American Industrial Hall of Infamy. It put me off my feed for American cars for a long, long time.

But that was then. This is now. After GM’s and Chrysler’s near-death experiences, the Big Three are finally making modern cars. They may not be the best in their class, but at last they’re good enough.

Even stodgy old GM seem to have gotten the message. It appears to be beating Toyota (and the world) to market with the first modern electric car, the Chevy Volt.

So now it’s time for us survivors to step up. We can stanch a lot of suffering just by buying stuff made here at home.

Doing so is neither protectionism nor economic jingoism. As we’re constantly reminded, the U.S. economy still drives the global economy, and the American consumer still accounts for 70% of our GDP. That consumer has been stressed lately, for lack of a job and/or a home. By buying American, we can put her and him back to work and jump-start our own and the world’s economy.

That approach makes sense whatever your political persuasion. Let’s say you’re a wealthy conservative who hates protectionism. You can reduce populist pressure for tariffs and other trade barriers by buying a Cadillac or Lincoln instead of that Beemer, Lexus or Mercedes. The more of us have jobs, the fewer follow Dobbs.

If you crave energy independence, luxury and caché, buy the $128,000 electric Tesla Roadster Sport. Going from zero to sixty in 3.7 seconds will help solve any manhood issues you may have. Buying a Tesla (or a Chevy Volt) will give us a push toward energy independence. And it just might show you why electric cars and windmills aren’t all that dismal an industrial future after all.

Suppose you hate paying taxes. By buying American and putting the jobless and homeless back to work, you can help lower the taxes you pay for bailouts, stimulus plans, and social services for the down and out.

Now let’s say you’re a liberal who supports unions. Except for services, heavy manufacturing is about the only place where unions still survive. You can help them by giving workers in unionized factories a chance to keep their jobs.

And if you’re liberal, you probably believe that climate change is real and want to help retard it. Then you can buy a Chevy Volt and run it on clean electric power. The Volt is not just another car, but a new American industrial infrastructure.

Let’s say you’re an independent, who hates both major political parties. You can snub them both and help our economy recover by buying things your fellow citizens make.

And if you’re so alienated you didn’t even vote in last year’s presidential election, you can “vote” now with your pocketbook. As a consumer, you exert economic influence just buying stuff made here. No matter what you think about politics—or whether you think about them at all—you can make your economic “vote” count.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s made in America. Foreign factories make and sell things with American trademarks. Many products with foreign brands are made right here at home. They include lots of “foreign” cars made in our own factories by American workers.

A quick Google search reveals many “Buy American” websites with references and links to products made here. But I couldn’t find any that seemed to me authoritative, comprehensive and unbiased. I couldn’t even find any that handles the most important product: cars.

Finding out where cars and their parts are made requires a lot of careful research, and people likely fear lawsuits for getting it wrong. The research required is beyond the capabilities of this lone blogger. It looks as if the Blogosphere has come to the same conclusion.

So we survivors need a handy website telling us where cars and major consumer products are mostly made. Maybe our leading media can take their scattered brains off the antics of Sarah Palin and other celebrities for a few moments and create one. Maybe Consumer Reports can.

But my personal nominee would be the libertarian Cato Institute—if it’s got the guts. What better way for a libertarian think tank to earn its spurs than by helping the “invisible hand” set things right? If nothing else, a Cato-created buy-American website would show that Cato’s modern minions really care about free-market economics and consumer sovereignty, and not just rich white guys.

This is one thing Government should not do. Government involvement would only infuriate the right wing, which seems to see red every time government twitches. More important, government involvement would risk foreigners blaming our government and retaliating. Protectionism is a road to disaster that we don’t want to drive down again.

But enlightened consumer choice with an eye on macroeconomic balance is not protectionism.

In late 2005, I took a business trip to a new sector of southeast Seoul. The modernity and scale of my surroundings amazed me. On one major boulevard, ten orderly lanes of traffic ran between endless rows of glass-and-steel skyscrapers bearing the logos of every Korean and multinational firm. The cars rolling down those lanes were all sparkling and clean, of recent vintage. Nearly every one had been made in Korea.

My Korean colleagues spoke in awestruck tones of South Korea’s “economic miracle.” But there was nothing miraculous about South Korea’s economic success. There was only good planning, hard work, and South Koreans’ faith in their fellow citizens—faith enough to spend their hard-earned cash on what their countrymen produced. That faith allowed tiny South Korea to build a brand (Hyundai) good enough to challenge number-one Toyota.

If we Americans have similar faith in our own humbled and chastened auto industry, we can help it revive. The same is true of other industries now on the ropes, including major appliances.

So let American trademarks become the new “chic.” Let the rich brag about buying Teslas, Fiskers, Cadillacs and Lincolns. Let those of more modest means buy cars made by Ford, GM and Chrysler, especially the Chevy Volt.

At least for a few years, let new foreign cars be a stigma, like those corporate jets the Big Three’s CEOs used to fly to the Senate hearings. Let all of us who are still whole take pride in buying good-enough products made in America.

Let’s do it not because government commands it, and for God’s sake let’s pass no laws. Let’s do it all by ourselves, as enlightened individuals. Let’s do it just because—at this particular moment in economic history—it’s the right thing to do, both for us and for the global economy. Buying American is one of the few things we all can do right now to revive our economy and still preserve the system of global free trade that took a century of bloodbaths to create.

[For historical and theoretical background for this post, click here.]

Short Subject: The President’s Bow

Among all the asinine reactions to the President’s trip to Asia, the Right-Wing Blowhard Conspiracy’s response to his bowing to Japan’s Emperor Akihito was most rankling.

Bowing is the way people shake hands in Japan. Everyone bows lowest to the emperor because that’s the way it’s done. Even Japan’s own prime minister does.

The low bow is not a sign of subservience but a custom. Japan’s emperor is a figurehead, having no more real power in Japan than Queen Elizabeth II has in Britain. No one published pictures of them, but the mutual bows of our President and Japan’s prime minister were undoubtedly equal, as they should be under Japanese custom.

Our President is a careful leader who attends to detail. You can bet he got instructions from his protocol officer on exactly how low to bow to the emperor. You can bet he practiced the bow to perfection on Air Force One. It only looked dramatic because he’s so thin and seemed to be twice as tall as the emperor. (Maybe that’s why, under Japanese custom, he had to bow so low.)

The bow cost nothing and gave up nothing. It certainly didn't mean that we were eager to make grand concessions on moving our base on Okinawa, for example. Every business person knows that, in negotiation, small acts of kindness, protocol and respect can pay big dividends. Those small acts are infinitely more important in Asia than they are in our brutally abrupt domestic business culture, and we’re all going to have to learn them as we deal more frequently with Asians.

The bow was a smart move, especially among the Japanese. They’ve always thought Westerners in general—and Americans in particular—a bit lacking in politeness and the social graces. The look of delight on the emperor’s face probably reflected increased respect for our country among millions of Japanese.

Now millions of Japanese have a better opinion of us and our President. Anyway, how would we feel if a foreign leader came to the White House and refused to shake hands with him? That’s what we expect here, and a low bow is what everyone in Japan expects of a visitor to the emperor. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Duh!

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1 Comments:

  • At Tue Jan 12, 06:16:00 PM EST, Anonymous Bruce Brown said…

    Yes, buying American is a very sensible thing to do now. If you really need a car, look hard and see if there is one that is 'good-enough'. For those of us who want to avoid the research required to find out 'how-American' a car or other product might be, I have another option....fix what you have.
    Recently I have taken my roto-tiller and snow blower to the local small-engine repair shop. I know that that money help an American worker.

     

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