Christmas buying in a world economy - a matter of balance

The distance from central Michigan to John Donne's England is measured in more than miles. Yet the other day, as I strolled past the holiday decorations of this struggling industrial city, Donne's famous lines came to mind. ``No man is an island,'' he wrote, ``entire to itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.''

That's a sentiment easily overlooked. Why, after all, should someone who doesn't live here be concerned about Flint? It's a one-company town - and that company, General Motors, has had a tough year. This year the domestic market share of this giant automaker dropped by 4 percentage points. It's planning to dismiss 36,000 hourly workers and reduce salaried employment by 25 percent.

Flint is bearing up bravely: Christmas lights twinkle in the trees, Santas ring their bells on street corners, and carols fill the glass-domed Water Street Pavilion. But there are plenty of storefronts for rent, and this month another well-established downtown shop is going out of business.

Causes? You hear all kinds: tough-minded unions, inept corporate management, incompetent civic leadership, failed federal policies, a shifting national economy - and, of course, stiff overseas competition. On this last point there's no doubt: The most recent United States government trade figures released show a whopping $17.6 billion deficit for October. Despite the falling dollar - making overseas purchases ever more costly - the imports keep flowing in. And of all the sectors making up that October figure, the one to increase the most was imported automobiles.

Until you walk the streets of Flint, those figures can sound pretty abstract. Nobody here sees it that way. Every one of those foreign cars - all $4.5 billion worth - represents an unsold domestic car. Small wonder, then, that there's hardly a foreign car to be seen in this city.

That's in sharp contrast to the American coasts, where foreign cars abound. Why? Coastal Americans have all sorts of reasons. American cars, they say, just can't compete in quality, styling, durability - and, of course, in price. Those may be valid reasons. But you just don't hear them in Flint. Does that mean that these Midwesterners are blind to a good deal and don't give a hoot for quality? Not at all. It means they've got something else in mind when they shop. I suppose they'd call it loyalty.

And that's a hard one. The American economy, after all, is built on competition. When the competitor builds better for less, consumers vote with their dollars. The whole process stimulates excellence.

So are the good people of Flint short-circuiting the competitive process by their loyalty to American products? I don't think so. I don't own a foreign-built car, either. And I'm hard pressed to see that my life suffers because of it. As much as I like foreign cars, I'm not sure the dollars saved by purchasing an import are the most important thing. I'm not sure, in other words, that the highest human good always lies in seeking the best bargain.

And that's why, as I walked the streets of Flint, I got thinking about John Donne.

It's easy enough, as I say, to keep your distance on a city like Flint. Most of us don't live here. Yet if we're all ``a piece of the continent, a part of the main,'' then we can't turn our back on it. So what can we do, in this season of gift-giving, to help?

Is the answer in some sort of ``Buy American'' campaign? It may be - with modifications. The modifications are important: If I truly am ``a part of the main,'' after all, I'm also part of a global economy, and I should be as unwilling to see an unemployed auto worker in Korea as in the United States. But that doesn't prevent me from having a special commitment to preserving my more immediate surroundings - which, in my case, is the US economy. I obviously can't support it alone. But neither can I ignore it entirely. It's a matter of balance.

I'm not proposing, this Christmas, to buy only American-made goods. But neither will I search relentlessly for the best imported bargain. The images of Flint are still too fresh in my mind. I'm not an island. Nor, I believe, is America a failed industrial giant, doomed to surrender all its manufacturing jobs to overseas nations. It's going through some rough economic changes, to be sure. But if there are ways in which, by my purchases, I can help the nation stay the course through the present shake-out, maybe I'll have contributed, just a bit, to the spirit of Christmas.

A Monday column

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