Time to let the air out of the feel-good ‘buy local’ bubble

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Economics: the dismal science.

Making fun of economists: a respected journalistic subcategory.

Pretending to understand economics: our incurable national delusion.

And one of the most persistent of our national delusions, one which affects businessmen, politicians, the employed and the unemployed alike, is that of autarky.

True believers know how to cure whatever economic ills may affect us – buy local!

As a nation, we ought to eschew foreign oil, foreign airplanes, foreign sugar, foreign rice and any other product or service that might make us dependent upon those unreliable, treacherous foreigners!

As residents of Colorado, and of Colorado Springs, we’re urged to buy local produce or patronize locally owned businesses. We think that local governments ought to hire local contractors (none of those swarthy, shifty-eyed furriners from Pueblo or Denver, thank you very much!), and companies that move here ought to hire local workers (leave those Californians unemployed!).

That’s fine – except that such policies would be disastrous.

As CSBJ publisher Lon Matejczyk noted in his blog the other day, Sandia Advertising’s Bernard Sandoval has come up with “a logo and a tagline (‘The buck stops here’) for a campaign that would help our city out of the economic doldrums.”

Unfortunately, such campaigns never have any effect, other than to make politicians look good.

That’s because our decisions are largely driven by the price, quality, and the availability of the goods and services we seek.

As a consumer, I buy groceries and most staples at either Wal-Mart or King Soopers. Wal-Mart’s farther from my house and less expensive, while King Soopers is close by and offers a better selection and higher quality.

I’d like to shop at Whole Foods, but I won’t drive that far.

I prefer local providers – but not because they’re local. My favorite bars, restaurants and stores get my business because they’re downtown or in my Westside neighborhood and offer good prices and great service.

Local autarky means inefficiency, higher costs and a stagnant economy.

If, for example, city government were required by statute to buy only from local providers, no good would result.

Suppliers would form mini-cartels, pad their bids and stick it to the city. Absent competition, prices would go up, quality would go down and the taxpayers would be stuck with the bill.

Obvious enough – but such mundane considerations have never deterred the local protectionist impulse.

More than a century ago, during 1906, the Colorado Manufacturers Association pursued what might be the first “Buy Colorado” scheme. The slogan: “Keep your money in Colorado.”

And, lacking the electronic tools to disseminate its message throughout the state, the association minted an unknown number of handsome bronze medallions. According to the legend on the medallions’ obverse, they were presented to customers of “Denver manufacturers and merchants.”

Other than a few surviving medallions, the details of the campaign have receded into the mists of history.

Twenty years ago, during a previous recession, then-Gov. Roy Romer gave his hapless lieutenant governor, Mike Callahan, the job of promoting the “Always Buy Colorado” initiative.

The ABC program had a logo designed, and cobbled up a list of certified Colorado providers, from morticians to manicurists, that was sent out to all and sundry – to little effect.

We might not support autarky in any of our daily decision making, but we elect politicians who do.

But let’s not trouble our pretty little heads with details! Let’s aim for local, regional and national autarky-fortress America, self-sufficient in everything!

Those pesky furriners can do whatever they please – as the song says, “We are a rock/We are an island.”

And everything will work out – just as it has for another country that has adopted a creed, juche, of radical self-reliance.

North Korea.

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.