Export Obliviousness

In the long lists of moments that comprise a nation’s history, there are a few that come to symbolize moments of great transition. Typically these are wars, the issuance of treaties, assassinations, and so on. Recently, however, a change of great importance was symbolized by the very silence with which it was greeted.

President Clinton purchased an automobile for his daughter, Chelsea, who is now a freshman at Stanford University in California. Though this is an insignificant rite of passage experienced by millions of Americans each year, it was a symbol of changing times nonetheless. For President Clinton purchased a new Volkswagen Beetle.

So the President bought a car from a German company, and this particular model happens to be assembled in Mexico. One doesn’t know whether to be more shocked by the President’s willingness to purchase a vehicle of foreign derivation or the almost total lack of criticism he encountered for doing so.

Acknowledged for his gift for politics, perhaps President Clinton knew that there would be scarcely anyone left in the country in a position to criticize. After all, the parking lots at major newspapers and television stations are filled with Hondas, Toyotas, and Nissans. The executives often tool around in Mercedes, BMW’s, Lexus and Infiniti vehicles. Even Pat Buchanan, an avid protectionist, was embarrassed when it turned out he had been driving a non-U.S.-built vehicle.

Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue and the fact that the President did not even pretend that his daughter wanted – and that he would refuse to purchase – anything but a “Made in the USA” vehicle still startles.

Doubtless, President Clinton was in a unique position to make this type of decision. The Democratic Party, of which the President is a member, is closely allied with labor unions. U.S. business would have trouble objecting, as most companies have interests around the globe. Unions, on the other hand, would have been ferocious in their criticism if a Republican had been President. Instead, they were muted by their close relationship with the President.

All this being said, there is significance in the fact that the common citizenry did not take this as anything exceptional or objectionable. It shows, more than any politician’s statement, how integrated into the American psyche has become an international approach.

It should be noted that such a perspective does not come easily to Americans. America has always seen itself as insulated from world affairs. In the early days of the Republic’s history, the principal source of revenue was import duties, and restrictions on imports in order to build up domestic industry has accepted the practice.

Today, though duties and other import restrictions have not disappeared, they are almost always recognized for what they are: A protectionist measure to help a specific industry or group of companies at a cost to the public at large.

The change in mindset signified by the public’s easy acceptance of Chelsea driving around in a Volkswagen is bound, in time, to also influence the attitude of American business toward export.

The truth is that Americans have been lousy exporters. The large domestic market offered opportunity enough for most, and so the typical American business person just didn’t pay that much attention to other markets. The large expanse of the U.S. didn’t necessitate the use of languages other than English, and even travel was more difficult than for, say, the typical European.

Even when Americans have exported, many have been opportunistic exporters. If this week the domestic market is oversupplied with some item, U.S. companies are on the prowl for export business. Next week, when the domestic market is short, export is no longer in the vocabulary.

This has hurt U.S. exports of course. Long-term markets have to be used, not abused, and markets take time to develop. There also are many exceptions to this rule of export neglect. For a long time, export has been such an important market for major U.S. agricultural exports that it has been carefully nurtured. Certain companies in every industry have carved out niches made available by the neglect of others.

The message of Clinton’s car purchase for importers of product exported from the United States is that the U.S. is feeling more comfortable as part of an international community. Inevitably this means that domestic business will find export less intimidating.