Political Myopia and America’s Manufacturing Decline (Guest Essay)   (June 4, 2011)

This guest essay by longtime correspondent Kevin Mercadante examines the costs to making short-term profits and government spending the metrics that guide the entire economy.

Political Myopia and America’s Manufacturing Decline
by Kevin Mercadante

For decades voices in the woods have been warning us of impending crises in the foundational systems that make the U.S. economy go. We’ve been advised of impending disasters in Social Security, Medicare, pension funding, the national debt, healthcare, energy and increasingly, employment. Charles and others sounded the alarm on the housing bubble years before it hit.

But as has become our happy little way, we ignore warnings, preferring to dismiss them as the staple fodder of the “gloom-and-doom” crowd.

We should have learned our lesson with the exploding of the real estate bubble, but perhaps we haven’t. It could be that we’re doomed to experience the falling of one domino after another until we come out of our media induced entertainment stupor fully prepared to face more than a few ugly realities.

While the fallout of the housing and mortgage collapse has proven to be a crisis worthy of capturing our attention, other dominos are indeed falling, but doing so with far less fanfare and concern.

A BIG sector where the battle is already lost

Earlier this year, the IMF reported that China has over taken the US as the world's top manufacturing nation ( IMF Bombshell: Age of America Nears End ). Over the past few decades we’ve had abundant warning that such a transition would occur. Mostly we’ve ignored the signs, contenting ourselves that the service economy and more government spending would more than replace what ever would be lost, and that come what may, America is still No.1!

But manufacturing isn’t just another sector of the economy—it’s the economic foundation of all modern industrial societies. To one degree or another, all other economic sectors rest on the foundation of the nations manufacturing production. It’s preposterous to believe that services and government spending can carry real economic growth in an economy devoid of the production of real goods—certainly not a nation as large as the U.S.

Because manufacturing produces tangible goods, it is the key to exports. Exports, in turn, are the key to trade surpluses and trade surpluses are the source of large international reserves—the kind that produce coveted creditor nation status.

China, Japan and Germany are creditor nations. All have large international surpluses, because all have large manufacturing sectors contributing to outsized exports that produce regular trade surpluses. And while the experts tell us that our manufacturing decline is due to high wages, it’s worth noting that both Japan and Germany have wage levels that are at least as high as the U.S, yet both have thriving manufacturing and export sectors. What is it that they can do that we can’t? We even have far more natural resources than either country!

Is the decline of manufacturing and our status as the world’s biggest debtor nation coincidental? Hardly.

But it gets worse. Manufacturing is also the fulcrum of technology, an area in which the U.S. has long claimed dominance, almost as some sort of birthright. As manufacturing goes, so will military-, computer- and medical-technology—and the high paying jobs they provide. The implications of the manufacturing decline are far more ominous than the collapsing of the housing bubble.

Politics and the manufacturing decline

If manufacturing is so important, we should be asking a critical question: where has our leadership been in the face of our decline?

I’m not talking about the current leadership—but I’m not excluding it either—the blame on this goes back at least a couple of decades. Have we the citizenry been holding our leaders accountable? It appears not.

What’s worse is that there seems be no “good guy” political party on this issue. As much as we might love to believe that there’s a good guy vs. bad guy element behind every issue, alas there isn’t. Both the Republicans and the Democrats have made substantial contributions to the country’s manufacturing decline, albeit from different directions.

What are some of the things Republicans have supported that have had a material negative impact on the nations manufacturing base?

  • Advancing favorable tax policies to conglomerates that move manufacturing production overseas.
  • Championed brushfire suburban development (“any development is good development”), sucking the life out of urban areas—which once were the very centers of American manufacturing.
  • Enthusiastically supported the FIRE economy for its ability to grow and create jobs much more rapidly than capital intensive manufacturing.
  • Allowed their patriotism and unbridled optimism over “all things American” to cause them to underestimate the capabilities of foreign competition.
  • Demanded balanced budgets when Democrats were in control—but when Republicans are in power they shift to “deficits don’t matter”. Deficit spending creates a false sense that money can be created out of thin air, rather than earned through the production and export of real goods.
And how about the Democrats—the one-time champions of union workers?
  • They’re the purveyors of not in “my back yard” (NIMBY)—if it’s ugly, noisy or dirty, move it somewhere else. How does manufacturing grow or even survive in that environment?
  • In growing suburban areas, they use “environmental concerns” to keep out manufacturing, businesses with physical inventories and even suburban agriculture (pesticides, animal habitat destruction, etc.)
  • They tend to favor “gentrification”, which is code for the elimination of the working class. They want sanitized neighborhoods, clear of work vehicles, chicken coops and physical inventory.
  • Though they claim to want to restrict growth in the suburban fringe, many seem to live there anyway.
  • Though they tend to cry foul over the corruption of the FIRE economy, they nonetheless tolerate it willingly because it’s “clean”.
  • They’re the party of tax-and-regulate. Any tax as a good tax—especially when it’s levied on businesses. That’s a difficult environment for any business to operate in, but more so for manufacturing concerns because they’re capital, inventory and labor intensive.

Not surprisingly, there are common platforms between the parties. For example, both are obsessed with maintaining the escalation of property values. But decades of relentless increases in real estate prices have done more than their share to degrade small business, agriculture and manufacturing. Property becomes so expensive that the land beneath a business enterprise is worth far more than the business itself. The land is then sold to make way for subdivisions, condominiums, office buildings and strip malls—the very nesting grounds of suburban development and the FIRE economy.

Neither party is concerned with true urban renewal or worker retraining—the kinds of efforts that could resuscitate a declining manufacturing base and provide jobs for millions of workers. Generous student loan programs are supported for elite university educations, but little emphasis is placed on community colleges and technical schools training workers for jobs closer to the ground.

What politicians of both stripes have been truly good at is keeping the issue out of public site. They’re as quick to bury the debate as they are to show up at ribbon cutting ceremonies at the opening of brand new (foreign owned) manufacturing plants in their home districts.

Is it at all hard to see why America’s manufacturing base has eroded to second class status?

Our favorite form of political participation: Blame the other party

There’s an article of faith in American politics: what ever is wrong with country is the fault of the other party. It’s not just the leadership of the two parties that engage in the practice either—it’s a common belief of the man on the street. That’s a simplistic belief that shows that we’re not emotionally prepared to face and deal with our problems.

Democrats tend to believe that the nation is in good shape as long as a Dem is in the White House. A March poll on President Obama’s approval rating found that while only 42% of the general population approve of the president’s job, fully 80% of Democrats do. What could explain such an enormous gap in perception?

The Republican faithful are no different. The very economic conditions contributing to Obama’s low approval rating were well in play during 2007-2008 when George W. Bush was at the helm. The economy was heading down the drain while Republicans were in denial—after all, their guy was in and all was well. Now they rail against Obama’s continuation of Bush’s policies as if the economic decline began in January of 2009.

Will that kind of partisanship fix anything?

Charles has written many times that the nation's ills will not be fixed by tinkering at the fringes, policy adjustments and promises of reform. Yet this is what politicians in both parties promise—and what we choose to believe even as reality screams otherwise. No real sacrifice, no real change—just get rid of the other party and all will be as it should. Is that a solution? Has it saved American manufacturing? Even more important, will that be our strategy for dealing with other major problems?

The truly dark side of ignored problems is that by the time they become front page news, it’s already too late! The task will no longer be to fix a broken system, but to build a new one from the ground up. Will this be the course with deficits, pension funding, healthcare and energy? We can hope not, but the trend is very unsettling.

Kevin Mercadante is a regular reader of Of Two Minds, a professional blogger and the owner of OutOfYourRut.com, a website about careers, business ideas, money and more.

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