Americans Turn From Japan, Eye US Goods

AMERICANS are going on a red-white-and-blue buying spree as recession and anti-Japanese sentiment fuel a revived interest in domestic goods.

From the campaign stump to the local gas station, consumers are being urged to "Buy American" and help bolster the economy one purchase at a time.

But even as "economic nationalism" surges across the land, some economists caution that buying only US-made products may not be the best tonic for the United States economy. They argue that fundamental change, not more loyalty to Ford, is needed to reignite factory America.

"Our economy will be more inefficient if we insist on buying things domestically that are cheaper and better-made overseas," says Edward Lincoln of the Brookings Institution.

Despite the caution, a growing number of Americans appear to be picking through products and contracts to find the "Made in America" label - often at the prodding of employers, unions, and local government.

For instance:

* In Los Angeles, county transportation officials recently rescinded a $122 million contract with an American subsidiary of Japan's Sumitomo Corporation to build rail cars and are exploring setting up a local factory to produce US-made vehicles.

* In Wheeling, Ill., the Indeck Power Equipment Company is offering a $1,000 bonus to any of its workers who buy or lease a new American car.

* A gas station near Edwardsville, Ill., has been giving 2-cents-a-gallon discounts to drivers who pull up in American cars.

"There is a resurgence of the Buy American movement," says Joel Joseph, chairman of the Made in the USA Foundation. "People are starting to realize that, to a certain extent, we control our own fate."

Images of factory and office workers being laid off is one reason for the product patriotism. But so is rising anger with Japan.

This was intensified by President Bush's recent trip to Tokyo, in which little progress was made in opening Japanese markets to American goods, and by a Japanese legislator's remarks that US workers are lazy and illiterate.

Unlike earlier "Buy American" fervor, supporters believe the move this time will have a more lasting impact. They contend the nation's economic woes are spurring a fundamental rethinking of consumer buying patterns.

Mr. Joseph cites surveys that show 22 percent of Americans purposely sought US-made goods in 1985. In 1989 that number had jumped to 39 percent. Today he speculates it may be more than 50 percent. He says a 3 percent change in consumer buying could cause a "huge shift" in the nation's trade imbalance.

"If the American people demand high-quality American products, corporate America will respond," says Brian Flood, execu- tive director of Made in the USA.

It isn't always easy to wave the flag at the counter, though. Some products are almost exclusively made in foreign shops. Try finding an American-made TV. Need new shoes? More than 80 percent of the leather footwear sold in the US comes from abroad.

Nor is a product purebred just because it carries the "Made in USA" label. While at least half the clothes sold in the US were stitched here, many contain fabric woven in foreign mills.

A Chevrolet may roll off the assembly line in Detroit but contain parts from Mexico and electronic components from Japan.

Smith Corona Corporation, the Connecticut-based typewriter maker, recently complained that one of its competitors was labeling products as "Made in USA" even though major components were manufactured elsewhere.

Skeptics see dangers in wrapping products in the American flag too tightly. Imposing restrictions on imports or buying only US-made products might prompt other countries to do the same thing, he says, hurting industries we're trying to protect.

Others argue that deeper problems need to be addressed.

"Buy American ... is a fad," says Thea Lee, a trade specialist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "My preference would be to see some consistent, coherent policy to address trade and industrial policies."

Local governments are eyeing the origin of goods and services as well. In the 1980s, many states passed laws giving preference to in-state companies in contract and product bids. California lawmakers are now considering expanding preference rules and requiring that at least half of all public-works jobs funded by the state go to California residents.

Some analysts doubt, though, that there will be a wholesale shift to hire only American firms. In today's tight times, lawmakers may be more interested in the bidder's bottom line than national origin.

Besides, such decisions can get complicated: Town officials in Greece, N.Y., recently chose not to buy a dirt mover from a Japanese firm and to consider instead a John Deere. The John Deere, it turns out, is made in Japan, while the Komatsu is made in the US.

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