It begins with the morning paper. U.S. unemployment has reached twice the population of Denmark. Braniff is busted, Checker defunct. Bankruptcies are up, stocks are down. And right there in the kitchen, somewhere between the ads for Cutty Sark and Atari computers, a small fault line of guilt appears in the smooth surface of the day.

You peer over the pages. The Japanese wall clock, faithful servant of many mornings, has taken on a cheap and sinister glint. As your eye glances from the Folonari to the Cuisinart, the mind ricochets in frantic inventory: the Sony TV. Adidas shoes. Pioneer amp. Lacoste shirt and Perrier water. Betamax and Nikon. Rio lawn chairs, Fuji bike, Chanel perfume. It sounds like a lawn sale at the United Nations!

No wonder millions are on the dole. You put them there! In a gut-tugging tremor of shame, your tidy middle-class life seems suddenly a squalid treason; your beloved Rolex the arms of Krupp; your Honda hatchback a squatting menace to mom, flag and pie.

You are a walking balance-of-payments deficit.

Dior bathrobe flapping, you begin prowling the house. And with deepening horror discover: Yamaha. Marimekko. Seiko. Dansk. Haitian cotton. Benedict Arnold at Bloomingdale's! Jarlsberg and Brie. St. Laurent. Reunite, Heinekens, Stolichnaya. Laura Ashley. By comparison, the Marshall Plan was pocket money. Rossignol skis. English silk ties. Swiss Army knives. Knirps umbrellas. Stoned Wheat Thins. Deutsche Grammophon and "Das Boot." Walkman, Pac-Man, Cardin and Scan.

(French toast, English muffins, Belgian waffles, Russian dressing. Swedish meatballs. The Persian cat!)

A mercantile epiphany forms over the Maxwell House. You will atone. Free trade is too expensive. Never mind that New York City is shopping abroad for its subway cars--one consumer can make a difference. Charles Bronson at the K mart, Mr. Smith goes to Woodies. You, your Visa card and a few devoted friends will together resurrect the huge Frankensteinian stiff of the American economy. All it takes is the right kind of charge.

Buy American.

It proves almost impossible.

Starting with your new hero Lee Iacocca. You've got retina-burn from watching him on the TV ads, patting the gleaming snout of a Chrysler, intoning with four-alarm piety that it's time to make "Made in America" mean something again. But pop the hood on one of those patriotmobiles and what do you find? That Le Baron convertible he's hawking has a Mitsubishi engine! Sayonara Motown. In fact, 30 percent of Iacocca-san's "made-in-America" cars have engines by Mitsubishi or Volkswagen--not counting the all-imported Japanese models, which make up 12 1/2 percent of Chrysler's total sales.

Not that things are much different across the lot. In fact, Detroit--where "Remember Pearl Harbor" bumper stickers are catching on--has become a motor melting pot. Ford now carries only a few imported engines (in its small truck line). But starting soon, they'll be using diesels from BMW for luxury cars. And for trucks, turbo diesels from Mitsubishi and other purveyors in the mystic East. "There's just no source for small diesels in this country," says a Ford spokesman. And plenty of Chevies are running on the Orient Express: Look at the little truck with the quintessentially American dingbat moniker of "Luv."

In fact, the first thing you learn in the buy-U.S. game is that even venerably familiar brand names--or those so blatantly imbecilic that they sound American--are no guarantee of domestic origin. Tic Tac mints are made in Italy, Velamints in West Germany. Also for the uber-alles file: The PolyGram entertainment juggernaut (German-Dutch) and Bantam Books (German-owned). Your Timex is likely to be made in Taiwan, or at least to have an English dial. Your Gillette Cricket lighter turns out to be an American-owned French brand manufactured in Puerto Rico. Bics are made here by the American arm--or is it thumb?--of France's Societe' Bic.

That $12 Scripto pen and pencil set was made in Japan--pencil alone from Korea. Who's behind those $10 Foster Grants? A Korean or Mexican manufacturer, in many cases. For Speidel, it's bands across the sea: Many come from Hong Kong. And the Gap's Durango Jeans--Durango!--are made in Taiwan, with its rich heritage of cattle-ranching.

(If E.T. had landed in a shopping mall, he'd have phoned back to the mom-ship that Taiwan and Korea were the most powerful nations on earth.)

On the other hand, many an exotic handle covers an American product. Alouette "traditionally French cheese" is made here, as is Haagen Dazs ice cream and Yoplait, the francophony yogurt. And don't count on national names: Much Haitian cotton is made in India, says the Design Store.

The second thing you learn is to be leery of labels. According to the Federal Trade Commission, putting "Made in the U.S.A." on your product is entirely voluntary. And while all imported goods must have the country of origin marked "clearly and conspicuously" for the "ultimate consumer," there's a catch, says FTC attorney Earl Johnson. Many foreign goods arrive in bulk to wholesalers and manufacturers--who consider themselves the ultimate consumers--and are incorporated into products which are then perceived as domestic. For sheer Americanness, not even the fabled hot dog can match a Brooks Brothers worsted suit. But most Brooks Brothers suits use imported wool--and many are made with worsted from Japan. Baa so!

But even when you know what to look for--and are prepared to pay the higher price which antique American technology and our home-grown sons of toil require for their labors--you can burn a small emirate's worth of hi-test trying to find a domestic product amid the Tokyo rows. Don't even mention television sets or 35mm cameras. (Kodak currently dominates the smaller-format "snapshot" field--but this fall, it's Tora-Tora time: Canon will start bombarding the market with its new "Snappy.") And forget about consumer radios, tape player/recorders or videocassette recorders--we don't make any of 'em!

Maybe it's not shocking to hear that the rising sum of imports includes almost all our carillon bells and hair dryers, or 90 percent of our Christmas ornaments and clothespins, or most of our stuffed toys. But razor blades? Cut your throat: America shaves on foreign steel. (Gillette, which dominates the market, buys from Japan, Great Britain, Sweden and France.) Moreover, America eats on foreign soil: Three-quarters of our fine earthenware and stainless-steel flatware are imported--as are half of our china, shoes and luggage, and one out of every four units of silverware, jewelry, toys and cars. (The Reagan White House is way over the national average: Half the staffers' cars--233 out of 493--are made in Japan, according to a survey by Industry Week magazine. Whose supply side are they on?)

Baseballs? Softballs? Forget it. The national orb is made in Haiti--the workers' paradise where a "home run" is what you do when the Ton-Ton Macoutes arrive--or in Central America. Bats, you discover, are still made in the USA. But try to find an American baseball glove! Almost all the Wilsons and Spaldings are made in the Orient. And one handsome specimen has this heartbreaking epitaph stamped in the pocket: "World-Famous Louisville Slugger Made in Korea." But then so are most of the basketballs and soccer balls at sporting-goods stores--right next to the burgeoning spawn of Japanese fishing gear, Taiwanese squash rackets and a million immigrant sneakers.

America is the global trend-setter, and it was our national holy war on flab that kicked off the sport-shoe boom. Yet more than 70 percent of our athletic shoes are imported. Worse yet: The hottest models from U. S. Keds--a name once sacred as DiMaggio to sandlot moppets--are made in Korea. Humiliating!

And what could be more American than a Sears, Roebuck bicycle? Especially one called the "Free Spirit!" But to your gaping stupefaction, Sears' top-of-the-line model has "Made in China" emblazoned in gold letters on the frame. And Sears is also peddling a transmission from Japan, tires from Shanghai. (Sixty percent of all bicycles, motorcycles and mopeds sold here are imported.)

Two weeks and four malls later, your last quantum of consumer chauvinism evaporates when a suburban mom reports this melancholy fact: She sent her kiddies off to camp, where each was issued an American flag to wave on the Fourth of July. But upon close scrutiny, the banners proved bogus, made in . . . Hong Kong!

Let's face it: We live in a country where Gucci and Vuitton are better known than Aldrin and Armstrong; where we spend half our weekend washing the Datsun and the other half bagging Japanese beetles. So it's not surprising that the 1981 balance-of-payments deficit hit a whopping $27.6 billion ($18.1 billion of it to Japan alone), up $3.4 billion from 1980. And for the last two years, manufactured imports have been increasing at nearly 14 percent a year, with no end in sight. And that's not counting the behemoth sub-economies of marijuana and cocaine from leafy Latin America, heroin from everywhere (else), and even Quaaludes, the main source of which is reportedly the People's Republic of China. The whole catastrophe is compounded by a strong U.S. dollar, which has driven up the price of our exports relative to other currencies--especially the grotesquely devalued yen--at the same time that Mitsui has been cheerfully dumping its steel all over our back 40.

Don't count on the White House to help. They're the inscrutable folks who tried to make the Great American Novel a Japanese import. The $7-billion U. S. book publishing industry is a strong net exporter, and books remain one of the few generally all-American items you can buy--largely because, since 1891, a section of the Copyright Act has restricted full copyright protection to those books printed and bound in the United States. That clause was due to expire this month, and Congress moved to extend it. Reagan vetoed the extension, which the Labor Department reckoned would imperil more than 300,000 jobs. Outraged solons overrode the veto by vast margins in both houses.

And don't look to government for optimism. "The truth is, we're slipping. We're losing our competitive edge" and "may lose our position as the world's premier industrial power before the end of the century." Pravda speaking? No, it's Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige in a recent speech to the Foreign Policy Association. And if you think that's gloomy, Baldrige sounds like a pin-stripe Pollyanna compared to the National Association of Manufacturers. In a recent newsletter, NAM predicted that the U. S. trade outlook for this year is even worse than 1981: "The main hopeful sign is that a domestic U. S. recession which is worse or longer than expected could further reduce imports."

That's the good news? Less is more. Worse is better. If you really want to tip the scales on the balance of payments, quit your job and go stand in a cheese line. But if you're not patriotic enough to go broke, you can still do your part by supporting our most competitive industries. Buy a Boeing 727 and a bulldozer. Smoke till you choke. Get a main-frame computer and a couple hundred (metric!) tons of industrial chemicals. Eat wheat, have a bypass operation, watch television, go to the movies and drive an F16. Get a new refrigerator. (There's no foreign competition for those monster chow-vaults we favor: Nobody else on earth buys that much food.) Drill for oil in Levis. Build a dam wearing Weejuns. Have a Coke, a Chicken McNugget and a communications satellite.

And if you see some nefarious gent aiming his Snappy at your IBM, call the Justice Department. After all, the United States leads the free world in having its industrial secrets stolen. Bye, American.