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July 5-11, 2006

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Car Culture

Gone Local

The whole hippie buy-local thing could be turned back on us and force liberals to buy Ford or GMC!

By Novella Carpenter

AH, IDAHO, it's not just the land of the potato and Aryan nationalists. It is also the proud home to many sex offenders, Mormons and, you guessed it, Republicans. I'm surrounded! There are American flags hanging proudly everywhere and yellow ribbons tied to anything that looks remotely like a tree. Just yesterday, I saw a bumper sticker that read "Sierra Club Sucks." It's the exact reverse image of my homeland, the Bay Area. In Berkeley, it's all Tibetan prayer flags and "Send the Troops Home" ribbons.

Even though it's kind of hell, I still sort of like being in the liberal minority—you know, get into the head of the enemy. For example, I was reminiscing about how on my way here, in Portland, Ore., I was drinking a locally made blackberry beverage, eating some homemade sausage and patting myself on the back. Then I saw a brand-new Kia sedan sporting a "Buy Local" bumper sticker. Both Billy and I scoffed at the outright hypocrisy of this directive: this person's biggest-ticket item of the year certainly wasn't made locally.

Anyway, I shrugged it off and didn't think about it until later. Here, surrounded by Tahoes and Rams, I realized that the "local" concept could be applied in a variety of ways. The whole hippie buy-local thing could be turned back on us and force liberals to buy Ford or GMC! I can see the bumper stickers now: "Think Locally—Buy American." How delicious that would be for Rush Limbaugh? One could argue that by purchasing local, American-made cars, consumers would be supporting the local economy and not wasting resources by shipping big items like vehicles halfway around the world. Oh, no!

Luckily, globalization saved us from that argument almost 25 years ago. That's when Honda first installed a factory in the United States. And more and more Asian automakers followed suit. Now Americans can buy locally made Honda, Toyota and Hyundai vehicles. Ha, ha, rednecks.

But back to Kia and our righteous bumper-sticker lady. Just because Kia is Korean, does that mean it wasn't made here in the U.S. of A? Alas for Miss Local, the cars are still made in South Korea. There is talk about building a production facility in our peachy state of Georgia by 2009, which is predicted to employ 2,500 local workers. But for now (and for our dogged local bumper-sticker fan), the Kia follows a path that is certainly not local. The car was probably made in its factory in Seoul, shipped by boat to Los Angeles and then trucked to Portland—a huge waste of resources. However, Kia does have some facilities in the United States—there's a Kia vehicle proving ground in Mojave, Calif., and a design studio in California. So if the West Coast is local, at least some of intellectual elements of Ms. Bumper Sticker's car fit her mandate.

Carmakers like Kia aren't necessarily coming to America (as Honda did in the 1980s) to become "local." Mostly they move abroad in order to gather more market share in the United States, in addition to reducing trade barriers and to protect against the rising value of their currency. They also go where demand is, where there's a rising middle class—witness the new VW and Toyota factories in Russia, and GM's announcement that it may follow suit in St. Petersburg.

Until the 2009 production begins, our Kia fan might have been better off buying "local" by getting a Toyota or a Honda. Or yes, a Ford, Chrysler or GM vehicle. This is the problem with being a purist. I mean, a real purist would argue that one should only buy a handmade bike or a rickshaw or some such. Billy thought buying local includes buying a used car.

Buying used cars as a surrogate for local makes some sense. I mean, the deed is done—kind of like using salvaged redwood. You're reusing it, helping the bad karma to become good. What right-winger could argue against that?

As for locally made beverages in Idaho, I noticed a Budweiser factory on a bike ride the other day—guess it'll be Bud all summer long—hey, it's local after all.

Contact Novella Carpenter or send a letter to the editor about this story.

Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.