Buying patriotism in the age of transparency

by Kai Hsing

Obama’s push to “Buy American” should make us all realize the need for real, raw information to be made readily available to consumers.



Going to work today, I took a train made by an Italian company that was assembled here in California while sipping Ethiopian coffee and reading a book printed in China – a now almost-cliché scenario replicated across communities throughout the U.S. with any combination of products and origins. Whether it’s a car instead of a train or Mexico instead of China, it’s nothing new to say that our economy has long been inevitably and inextricably global.

Which is why President Obama’s push for all of us to “Buy American” seemed to be a rather tired rhetorical device aimed at placating the xenophobic masses. Indeed, we all know that conditions of a globalized economy can be questionable at best, but there will be no return to a feudalistic retrofuturism anytime soon.

But what has changed in our lifetime is that global capitalism has gotten so complex and shape-shifting that we’ve long needed a redefinition of what “Buy American” really means.

A recent article in the New York Times that tried to sort out the anguishing identity crises of labeling automobiles as “American” or “foreign” found that:

… “domestic content” is not domestic at all. For the purposes of the window sticker, the government has decided that domestic content will include parts made in Canada. Under the North American Free Trade Act, domestic is even less clear because it also includes Mexico.

Meanwhile, the labor of autoworkers assembling the vehicles is excluded from the calculation. Therefore, foreign carmakers with assembly plants in the United States are penalized because they cannot factor in the value of their American workers’ labor.


Reporting the origin of the engine and transmission is also tricky. Take Honda’s engine plant in Anna, Ohio. Although the engine of the Acura RDX is made there, Japan is listed as the country of origin. That is because one expensive part, the turbocharger, is imported from Japan (and installed by Ohio workers).

Considering that NAFTA and the United States historically have always placed nearly all of the emphasis and value on material goods and none on labor, how does the average consumer navigate through all the post-national corporate entanglements, if you don’t have the New York Times to do the research and create a handy interactive guide?

It’s mandated that all packaged food in this country must have its ingredients and nutritional value labeled so that consumers are more aware of the consequences of their purchases. Shouldn’t the origins of non-food items be just as consequential?

No matter what your definition of buying American is, real conversations and informed decisions can’t begin to happen without having the real, raw information made readily available to consumers. There would be some practical challenges at first in requiring labels to list where a product’s materials are derived from, where it is assembled and packaged, or even where the product’s parent company is headquartered. But if President Obama is serious about encouraging Americans to consider supporting “American” products, then at least give all consumers the opportunity to see the full picture and let them decide for themselves what it means to “Buy American.” Let’s require all products to include information about where it came from and who benefits from its purchase. In this so-called age of transparency, we should expect nothing less.