Buy American! A conventional, well-intentioned, patriotically affirming sentiment. We've heard it all our lives. But unless you crave less competition, fewer choices and higher prices, it's also a completely irrational one.
Naturally, then, as we kick off "Recovery Summer! Part Deux," the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee says that buying homemade cars is a matter of national importance. "If it were up to the candidates for president on the Republican side, we would be driving foreign cars," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz explained while defending the protectionist auto/union bailout. "They would have let the auto industry in America go down the tubes." (And by "we," Wasserman Schultz, proud American, is talking about herself and her sweet Japanese-made Infiniti FX35.)
As if that weren't enough, those who oppose this brand of corporate welfare, according to Wasserman Schultz, also reject the very idea of "American exceptionalism." Now, one might argue that those who claim we must bankroll a few politically favored companies because an entire manufacturing sector could collapse are the ones skeptical of American ingenuity, perseverance and exceptionalism.
But God, evidently, loves the Volt and the Volt only. And Americans -- people who can do almost anything, including, but not limited to, electing politicians who keep rotten companies buoyant for political gain -- have a patriotic duty to buy poorly conceived automobiles. You have an obligation to insulate Washington's favorite companies from responsibility. For God and for country, taxpayers must purchase cars from corporations that have not come close -- despite the contention of the administration -- to paying back what they already owe you.
But hey, the car was assembled in Michigan. If that's not a sign of American exceptionalism, I don't know what is.
Even if Wasserman Schultz's "Buy American" rhetoric were genuine, it would be severely misguided. Every time we overpay for an American-made product (whatever it is), don't we also spend less on an array of other services and products that create jobs at home? Real jobs. Self-sustaining jobs. If we all mechanically bought American, wouldn't we allow manufacturers to avoid competition and rely on their locations rather than the excellence of their products? Sounds like the opposite of exceptionalism.
Companies on the dole also have incentive to please their benefactors in Washington -- a place that has the power to offer more handouts or to stifle competition. Like much of modern liberalism these days, a socially responsible outcome is far more important than a profitable one. Business is for social good, not for profit-mongering. We have no clue what's good for us, anyway. These companies, though, have less incentive to keep prices low or to innovate or to meet consumer demand.
Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman once explained in his book "Pop Internationalism" that if he could stress one thing to students, it would be that "international trade is not about competition, it is about mutually beneficial exchange." Wasserman Schultz is bright, so she must know all about the counterproductive history of protectionism. Then again, when she says "Buy American," maybe she just means "Buy Union" -- buy union because taxpayers subsidize GM and it pays workers and they subsidize unions that subsidize the right candidates. A mutually beneficial exchange.
Or maybe -- like most Americans, however inclined they are to embrace populist rhetoric regarding trade during tough times -- Wasserman Schultz acts rationally when spending her own money. Now if only that rationality could seep into her political life, we'd be a lot better off.