Give us the freedom to buy these foreign cheeses

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Upon his inauguration as the first American president in 1789, George Washington wore a brown double-breasted Connecticut fabric suit. “The fabric and the buttons. . . truly honor the manufactures of this country, ”he wrote of his independence from British tailoring.

His successor Joe Biden this week took action to ensure that the US government purchased “Products made in the United States by American workers and with components made in the United States.” The effect was slightly spoiled by the American president sporting a Swiss made Rolex watch as he signed decrees.

Presidents Biden and Washington, who transformed into British-made silk suits for the opening night, embody age-old tension. As leaders, they try to strengthen the domestic industry; as consumers, they want high quality products and services wherever they are. The Rolex would have been a christmas present of Jill Biden, the first lady.

Patriotic buying is all the rage, as the US and EU try to repatriate the manufacturing of everything vehicle batteries at medical material other countries, especially China. Anger over production of more vaccines for AstraZeneca in the UK than in Belgium has caused annoyance argument between the company and the EU.

UK has its own difficulties with imports and exports of fish and cheese as well as other goods subject to sanitary inspections and customs controls since leaving the EU. “The EU’s threats to the vaccine trade are a warning to us. We need to increase our own capacity to manufacture and grow products at home, not to depend on too many imports from the EU ”. tweeted John Redwood, an MP supporting Brexit.

But a glance in any supermarket shows that while UK shoppers appreciate local produce, they also love to wander around, looking for the variety offered by the global sourcing. “I expect my local store to have bananas and tea by the end of the month,” replied Sarcastic at Mr. Redwood.

It is easy to be misled by today’s debate over government purchasing of goods and services, including vaccines and military equipment. There is a lot of money at stake, especially in the fight to protect populations from the coronavirus, but the sums are eclipsed by consumer spending.

The U.S. government’s efforts to get agencies to avoid foreign contracts reverted to the Buy American Act of 1933, passed after a nationalist campaign by William Randolph Hearst in his journals. But federal contracts are, like the American Chamber of Commerce Notes, “Just a slice of the whole US market.”

Mr Biden’s order covers $ 600 billion in federal contracts, while US residents spent $ 12.5 billion on products and services in 2020, according to the Brookings Institution. It’s hard to shift much more federal spending – more than 95% already goes to American companies. Politicians have always been happy to bring work to their districts.

Personally, I don’t want my choices to be restricted. I recently bought a pair of British made shoes because their local manufacture and quality appealed to me. The same applies to many foods and drinks. But being told I should buy them as a patriotic duty because the UK is suffering the consequences of exiting the EU single market and the customs union is painfully bleak.

Judging from the story, I’m typical. UK governments have flirted with cajoling people to support domestic businesses over the years, but buyers themselves have not cooperated. In 1978, a Buy British campaign proposal was scrapped after an opinion poll found that, a study He says, “at best, domestic consumers were ambivalent with British products.”

This is in part due to the fact that governments – and trade associations that represent domestic suppliers – compete with multinational corporations that wisely market the quality of global products. “It’s tempting to spend money on national campaigns, but they’re insignificant compared to brand budgets,” says David Clayton, professor at York University and co-author of this study.

The problem is also deeper. Many consumers in the US and UK have historically identified overseas manufactured products such as higher quality Japanese electronics and German cars. It took a long time for British brands to shake off their reputation for poor quality, and Buy National campaigns – or mercantilist tweets – rekindle bitter memories.

There is nothing wrong with a certain localism. The popularity of artisanal products and the desire to trace what we buy, rather than just accepting an anonymous supply chain, demonstrates the desire for the industry to be grounded. This applies to both Cheshire cheese and Parmigiano Reggiano.

But the instinct of consumers not to emulate government buying habits is well founded. The line between buying from Americans and Asians is blurrier than it looks – just $ 25 out of a $ 100 pair of Nike sneakers goes to the Asian company that makes it. Nike receives $ 21.50 and the US retailer keeps $ 50, according to at the Federal Reserve of San Francisco.

This also appears to be Mr. Biden’s attitude, wearing a Rolex on his left wrist as he signs orders with his right hand. Pursuing different policies as president and citizen is wise.

john.gapper@ft.com



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