Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Buy American" is Unpatriotic! And Socialized Medicine is the Capitalist's Choice

I've always felt that the notion that Americans should favor goods is inherently unpatriotic. If capitalism is to be our economic system, then we should follow the fundamental guiding principle by which prices are determined: the market. Americans who value this principle will buy American-made goods when they are the best options. To choose to buy an inferior product because it's made in America is to concede that American companies and American workers can't truly compete in the global market; it's an individual version of a totalitarian state's isolationist trade policy. Well, I was very glad to hear that the new CEO of GM, Fritz Henderson, not only shares this view, but was willing to articulate it clearly and boldly this last weekend on NBC's Meet the Press.

"MR. GREGORY: Do you expect and would you like to see President Obama encourage the country to buy American cars?

MR. HENDERSON: No, actually. I, I, I think the consumer should buy exactly what kind of car they think meets their needs and that excites them. And as I look at it, it's our job to make sure we provide that, not necessarily have it mandated or otherwise encouraged. I think we have fantastic cars and trucks. We're going to win in the marketplace and not necessarily because--just because we're a U.S. company."

Personally, I have no dog in the fight, but if the CEO of a major US corporation is willing to forgo the possible reward of "Buy American" campaigns because he genuinely believes in the quality of the products his company makes, that gives me far more confidence in the products than any speech about how we should buy American products just because they are made here. Way to go, Fritz!

Now, on that note, I should add that there are limits to my devotion to capitalism. Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko, in the movie Wall Street, famously said, "Greed is good." Sometimes that's true, but it's what Augustine would have called a "lesser good". When the profit motive overtakes human decency, capitalism can quickly go from the best economic system to the absolute worst, at least for its victims. A great example is our health care system. Lots of people die in this country because a few people want to make a lot of money (not just make a living, but a huge profit) by treating only those who can pay for it.

Luckily, as Timothy Noah points out here, we have a solution that can satisfy everyone but the greediest among us: an optional public insurance. Rather than a government mandated system, which could benefit from economies of scale but which also might lack quality, flexibility, and inventiveness, or our current system which has those qualities at the expense of a lot of lives, not to mention great additional cost, let's give people the choice of a public plan or their private one. The public plan would have a huge advantage on price, but it would still have to compete to offer comparable care. The private plans would hold on to the upper-end of the economic ladder as niche products but they could drive the rest of the market with their quality and inventiveness. The big losers would be the current health care insurance conglomerates which would be down-scaled to boutique businesses, but if they have any foresight they'd see they would be better off that way than to be completely eradicated in a complete government takeover.

Once upon a time, industries like the automotive industry sided with the health care insurers against the government. Now they've come around and are begging for a public option in order to compete with countries which provide socialized medicine. The market has spoken, and in this case, it's opted for socialism. The health care insurers are on the wrong side, not only of history, but of capitalism, and they stand to lose everything if they don't adjust. They can choose to side with the crack-pot talking heads on Fox News, and so can the ignoramuses who still give credence to anything anyone says on that station, but a good capitalist economist would tell you not to: The Fox News blowhards have every economic incentive to rant and rave, and no price to pay when they lose a political battle. They just get to go on raving. The insurance companies run the risk of pushing the country beyond the point of a public option, to the point of a public mandate that wipes them out. And as for the viewers of Fox News? They could very well end up bedridden and uninsured, nodding in agreement with the fools on their screens, while dieing of some treatable disease and crying, "Those damned liberals want to take away our choice!"

Take it from the CEO of GM: If you can't win in the marketplace, you won't have any choice at all.


Wakefield Tolbert said...


I hate to throw wet blankets over such a well crafted, sardonic parody of capitalists as you've done, but like all else in life sometimes in a "mixed" economy, with all that entails, some things are not straight forward.

Of course you know this.

Having capitalists whine (and they should have thought of this before turning the Big Three into what amounts to retirement homes that sell cars on the side, ya know) about foreign competition does not justify so-called "free" healthcare or its many euphamistic varietns--which will in turn destroy private insurers and give us Brittanic level medicine.

(lousy, and God help you if you're 65 and need surgery).

One does not follow the other any more than the rooster who thinks his crowing makes the sun come up.

Capitalists whine too.

But though crap.

If they scale down some of the sumptious UAW benefits things might change. And while it's understandable now that the goody-bag is out and unloaded to the tune of billions that they'll beg for more from Santa, that too is not an answer to comeptition.

Time to make a better vehicle.


I know as a consumer I'll pay more for quality and longevity rather than the run around I always got from Detroit's junk.

Benjamin Gorman said...

You'll pay more for quality and longevity, but that's not really the question: Would you pay more for a comparable product built in Detroit because they are paying excessive amounts for health care? I certainly wouldn't. As for the question of the quality of health care in countries like Great Britain or Canada, our perception is skewed because we compare apples and oranges: people in those countries with public care and people in the US with private care. If we were honest, we'd compare the average person in one with the average in another. You think it takes a long time to get surgery in Britain, imagine how long it would take you to save up the money to pay out of pocket in the US if you had no care. The average between "short wait" and "never" is much longer than "long wait". Also, the average cost for people with care in the US is pushed up by two factors: people without insurance are still guaranteed medical care, so they use emergency care and avoid much cheaper preventative care, pushing up prices for all of us. Secondly, we have to add much greater overhead to our care because we have many companies, some for-profit and other not-for-profit, competing to provide that care. This adds layers of extra costs, both in profit and redundancy, which exceed the excess that might be incurred by bureaucracy. Plus, if said bureaucracy were mismanaged, we could take its leaders to task through the democratic process, a power we do not have over private corporations.

I agree that a mixed economy is best, but health care is an area where competition actually diminishes our ability to compete in other areas, like the automotive industry. Let's keep competition where it helps because people can vote with their pocketbooks, like when buying cars, and remove it where it hurts because the goods or services aren't optional, like health care. Unless we really want to be consistent capitalists, in which case we just let poor people die because they made the "choice" to not buy insurance.