Prosperity: A Cultural, not Economic, View, and a Little about a Swiss Rubber Duck

In recent years, the sacred views of economists have increasingly come under attack.  Psychologists have led the charge, and they have pretty much shot holes through the notion that we behave in “economically rational” ways that economists for decades said we did.  I was thinking about these things a couple of weeks ago, as I contemplated the rubber duck in the bathroom of my hotel in St. Gallen, Switzerland.  More specifically, I was thinking about the “Made in Switzerland” stamp on the bottom of the cute plastic creature (by the way, the room had no tub, only a shower, which begs a question, but that’s for another post!).

Can you imagine an American hotel that would specifically order rubber ducks stamped “Made in USA”?  One wonders if there is a company left in our republic that still makes rubber ducks.  No, that manufacturing has, like so much else, moved to China.


But the people responsible for provisioning the City Hotel Weissenstein had chosen Swiss-made ducks, probably because they believed that their ducks were better.  In previous posts about travels in Helvetia, I have often observed that the country is filled with small- and medium-sized manufacturers, little plants churning out all matter of stuff.  I see them from the cars of the superb Schweizerische Bundesbahnen, the Swiss Federal Railways, and from there you see the backsides of industry all over the country – my German is good enough to figure out what the various plants make.

Some output is exported, and the Swiss have built a fine reputation for all sorts of stuff beyond what we usually think of, the watches and the chocolate.  But all those factories aren’t in the export trade; many (likely including the rubber-duck works) do a thriving business supplying a local market of fewer than 8 million.  Swiss stuff, whether sent abroad or sold within the confederation, is expensive.  I am wholly unaware of the nature of Swiss tariffs, but knowing what I do about their political-economic views, I suspect that they are quite open, so I doubt that the duck plant hides behind a steep wall of protectionism.

So the reason that the hotelier chose a Swiss rubber duck was that he or she believed that it was better.  Better quality.  Better because it helped the Swiss economy, which is really an abstract way of saying “I helped my neighbor stay employed.”  Isn’t that a powerful cultural value?  And maybe the hotelier knew more – and I am speculating here – perhaps knew that it was made in a plastics plant that was managed cleanly, unlike virtually every one of its counterparts in the PRC (the relative judgment about environmental responsibility would be a safe assumption).

We don’t think like that in the U.S.  We want it cheaper, so we can have more.  Maybe we should start thinking more like the Swiss, whose culture clearly values local support, even at the expense of conventional economics.

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