Once again National Consumer Protection Week falls smack in the middle of Lent. Is this yet another coincidence, or rather a celestial reminder of the benefits of occasional restraint?
This year, in particular, no one really wants a restrained consumer; and by no one I mean not your Occupy Wall Street-friendly local small business, nor the largest of American corporations, nor the government, nor the underpaid factory workers in China. NO ONE.
Consider this: The most recent data shows US GDP growing 3 percent during the last quarter, and consumer spending up 2.1 percent. Shoppers were emboldened by the biggest wage increases since March 2007, a combined $197.3 billion in the third and fourth quarters. Consumer spending is 70 percent of GDP, so the individual decisions consumers make are a big factor in lifting our economy. But as we slowly loosen the grip on our wallets, we have to make sure that this time around we spend our dollars mindfully. If the myth of the rational consumer is dead, then let us raise a new ideal in its place and make it real: the conscious consumer.
This means taking into account how our purchasing decisions affect the world. As we rebuild our economy we have a chance to get it right and make sure it is on a stable and sustainable foundation. We have as much a responsibility to our communities and ourselves as we would demand that corporations respect our rights and that government protects them. And that's what National Consumer Protection Week is all about. It's an adult moment for all of us: consumers, corporations, and regulators.
American consumers represent the perhaps most powerful economic force ever known to man. 18th century economist Adam Smith, author of "The Wealth of Nations," himself foresaw this when he said, "Consumption is the sole end and consumers are often seen to be on the lowest link of a very long economic food chain. Why is that? Imagine if we were organized and well-informed. There is no business or economy that could withstand the truly organized wrath of the American consumer. And one thing we should be more organized about is buying American.
Now, "Buy American" and its advocates have generally been discredited for several very good reasons. First, all things being equal, consumers will buy the best product at the lowest possible price at all times, and that intelligence fosters competition, which in turn lowers consumer prices. Second, in the globalized economic ecosystem of the 21st-century, it has become increasingly more difficult to determine exactly which products are "American." For example, the average GM, Ford or Chrysler car may contain parts manufactured in literally dozens of foreign jurisdictions, and lots of Toyotas and BMWs are now manufactured in this country.
I'm not suggesting anyone purchase an inferior product just because it was made in the USA, nor would I suggest that someone overpay for an expensive American- made product when a cheaper foreign-made equivalent is available. But if it's a tossup between two products of comparable price and quality, one American and one not, buy American. Here's why.