Ethics @ Work: On the Burma Road

Government gives wrong reasons to buy Israeli products.

The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry has been bombarding us with ads urging us to “buy only blue and white.” I think the campaign is extremely ill-advised for a number of reasons.
A fundamental problem is that the entire campaign is based on the premise that the distinction between “blue and white” products and others is really meaningful. For a few products that’s true; there is clearly a difference between some services provided by an Israeli and those provided by foreigners. But these kinds of services generally don’t present much of a choice in any case. You are hardly going to get your hair cut by a barber in Mumbai, or your Israeli taxes done by an accountant in Malaysia.
But when it comes to manufactured products, who is to say what exactly is “blue and white”? If an Israeli factory assembles parts obtained from abroad, is that bluer and whiter than a product made abroad with Israeli technology? And aren’t foreign products brought here by Israeli importers, who also need to make a living?
The whole distinction is usually meaningless, or at the very least beyond the ability of the average consumer to discern.
An additional problematic premise is the idea that if we all buy only blue and white, this will be good for the Israeli economy. On a long-term basis that’s just not the case.
Whenever we buy foreign goods in dollars or euros or yens, we have to pay for that foreign currency with shekels, which then have to get used here for consumption or investment. Furthermore, research shows that exposing local industry to foreign competition strengthens it by making it more productive.
It’s true that during a recession buying local goods may have a short-term stimulating effect. But that’s not the thrust of the campaign, and what consumer is in a position to calculate the input-output matrix of the goods on store shelves?
Another problem is that the message is contradictory and counterproductive. The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry sends its representatives to countries around the world trying to encourage importers to buy Israeli products because they are of high quality. How exactly will they reconcile that with the message they are sending the Israeli consumer: There is a patriotic duty to buy local products and patriotism, rather than quality, is the right reason to buy Israeli?
And what if our trade partners decide to retaliate? Let’s suppose China or the US decide that if Israelis want to discourage purchases of their products, they will discourage purchases of Israeli products? I leave it to the reader to guess which country will suffer more from this equitable beggar-thy-neighbor approach.
Another problem with the campaign is that its thrust is not only wrong, it’s gratuitous. The ministry can promote Israeli products more conscientiously, and more effectively, if it would just advocate their substantive advantages – just as it does when promoting Israel abroad. (Perhaps Israelis are subject to the same misconceptions as foreigners about the relative merits of our local products.)
This would be a way to support local industry without sendingcontradictory messages, without goading our trade partners and withoutencouraging mediocrity.
Israel’s dream has been to become thenext economic miracle like Singapore or Hong Kong, whose economies areamong the world’s most open and prosperous. Based on the ministry’slatest campaign, it seems like the new dream is to be like North Koreaor Myanmar.
AsherMeir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem,an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (MachonLev).