the siren song “Buy American” and the reality

One of the refrains by Donald Trump and many of his supporters (as part of the proposed actions to Make America Great Again) was “buy American”.
When i read this being used as a phrase, i smiled inwardly and outwardly.
I understand the sentiment, particularly if you are of the worldview that your country is The Best. If it is The Best, why would you buy anything not made here?
However, the reality is going to win out every time over this fine-sounding phrase.
When i was growing up in the UK, it was a period where the British Empire had essentially disappeared, first gradually, then more rapidly. The United Kingdom had walked away from it, or given away most of it since it had become clear that it could not afford to police it or defend it any more following World War II. The UK was essentially bankrupted by that war.
The loss of Empire was jarring for many people, especially ex-military people. After all, we had seen off that nasty Mr. Hitler, so why could we not keep these damn countries in line?
Out of the overall national angst, in the middle of a period of poor UK economic performance in 1968 (the UK essentially had no foreign currency reserves, because the Pound was overvalued, being pegged to the Dollar), five secretaries in a London suburb volunteered to work an extra half hour a day to help the country.
Thus was born the “I’m backing Britain” campaign.
The campaign soon expanded beyond working unpaid time (an idea that was swiftly torpedoed by the trades unions, whose interests were diametrically opposed to this idea, they wanted people to work less hours for MORE money), to the idea that people should “buy British”.
However, like all grass-roots campaigns, it was soon surrounded by would-be hijackers, including newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell, who was soon embarrassed (this is going to sound familiar) when his “I’m Backing Britain” t-shirts were found to have been made…not in the UK.
The campaign even had a theme song. (WARNING – You may be about to enter the cringe zone).
I sat and watched as the campaign started, soared, stuttered spluttered, and fizzled out within a space of about 3 months. Within a year almost everybody had forgotten about it, or did not even want to be reminded of it. Mentions of it would result in comments along the lines of “nice weather we have today”.
The reality was that at the time Britain was being flooded by cheap imported goods from a host of other countries, led by Hong Kong, as other countries began to industrialize and found that they could make finished consumer goods cheaper than UK companies. Steel cutlery, for example, used to be supplied almost exclusively from Sheffield in northern England, but by the end of the 1960s the Sheffield steel industry was becoming a historical footnote, as most of the steel cutlery was being supplied from overseas. It was part of the beginning of de-industrialization in the UK.
One of the contributory factors to the total failure of I’m Backing Britain was that for it to be successful (at least the “Buy British” part) it required consumers in the UK to be willing to pay more for domestically-produced goods. That is the sort of requirement that most people do not want to meet, particularly if they have a limited budget. The only way to ensure that people buy domestic goods is by government rigging the market, using some combination of price controls and tariffs on imported goods. The government in the UK was not prepared to do that.
I therefore remain enduringly cynical that any campaign based on the slogan “buy American” will not succeed at the street level in the USA. Consumers are not going to reduce their standard of living in order to buy US-made goods.


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