Made in America in a Global Age

You might not have noticed, what with all the news about Russia and health care, but this is “Made in America Week.” The week was so proclaimed by President Donald Trump to draw public attention to his plans to increase employment in the American manufacturing sector, and he kicked it off on Monday with a White House display of products from all 50 states and a nostalgic and dire speech warning that they’re all threatened by competition from those darned foreigners.
“Buy American” is always a crowd-pleasing slogan, and we can well understand why Trump would prefer to talk about something other than Russia and health care, and there were no doubt some good points somewhere in the typically hard-to-parse speech, but it was a nonetheless a risky public relations move. Pretty much everyone who covered the event mentioned Trump’s long history of building his properties with foreign steel and foreign labor and stocking his luxury hotels with foreign-made goods and having almost all of his Trump-branded products made in low-wage foreign countries, and that his daughter’s clothing and jewelry lines are entirely made far offshore, with the mentions ranging from begrudging on the right to downright gleeful on the left.
Everyone who voted for Trump knew all that when they voted for him, though, and either begrudgingly or gleefully accepted his explanation that he was just playing by the rigged rules the globalist establishment had imposed on the country. Many of those voters believed Trump’s constant promises he would re-write those rules to the benefit of the American workers he had previously declined to hire, and that he could do so without running afoul of either the Constitution or the far more iron-clad laws of economics, but keeping them happy until the next election cycle will probably prove tricky. Re-writing the rules of a multi-trillion dollar American economy is always tricky, and predicting its effects on a even more-multi-trillion dollar global economy is trickier yet.
Over the past three decades the manufacturing sector of the economy has dwindled to less than 8 percent of the American workforce, and that’s largely due to companies moving factories out of the country, but American manufacturing output has doubled over the same time period, which is entirely attributable to a technological revolution in productivity. When our parents were born the agricultural sector employed about half of the American workforce, now it’s less than 3 percent, yet Americans are fatter than ever, and the days of slopping hogs and plowing behind mules are no more appealing to the average American than any assembly line job of the ’50s. All the other technological revolutions wrought by the largely laissez-faire rules the globalist establishment has imposed have also delivered telephones that answer your trivia questions and Uber drivers who deliver you safely home from a drunken evening and drugs that keep you libidinous well into senility, along with the cheap t-shirts and countless other life-enhancing products available for everyday low prices at Wal-Mart, but life is also increasingly tough for the kinds of people who are willing and able to do an honest days work in a factory but can’t come up with those ideas.
Mitigating the harm done over the past three decades without impeding the progress that has been made is tricky indeed.
There truly are a lot of ridiculous workplace regulations in America that make foreign workforces appealing to American companies, and we begrudgingly credit Trump with a thus-far effective effort to undo many of them, but he’s going to have to go a lot further than that to make the American workforce economically competitive with the sweatshops that the Ivanka Trumps and Triangle Shirt Factories of corporate America are currently flocking to. Once Trump reaches that degree of de-regulation he’ll have reached the point of diminishing political returns, even with his staunchest supporters on the factory floor.
Trump would have to go even further to offset the economic benefits of all the robots and computer kiosks all the other newfangled efficiencies of the modern age, and if he did he’d threaten the highly-taxed livelihoods of all the people who are able to come up with such bright ideas, as well as the people they still have to man the reception desk and clean up the offices and ensure they’re in compliance with all those federal regulations. Those highly-taxed people with the bright ideas could easily relocate to more welcoming economies with lower tax rates and similarly fine restaurants, but it would be hard to explain to the rest of the workforce how that made America great again.
Still, listening to Trump’s speech we can’t help sharing some of his nostalgia. “Remember in the old days?,” the president said, “We used to have made in America, made in the USA.” He touted such iconic American products as Tennessee’s Gibson electronic guitars, Texas’ Stetson hats, and Oklahoma’s Ditch Witch excavators, and although he touted some baseball bat from Louisiana rather than the classic Louisville Slugger out of Kentucky he was admirably all-American in his choice of props. He also touted the Sikorsky Helicopters from Connecticut, boasting to his working class fans that “I own three of ’em,” and we thought he looked rather ridiculous pretending to be a fireman in a Wisconsin-built firetruck or a cowboy in a Stetson hat, which his more snarky critics had lots of fun with, but all in all “Buy American” was nonetheless a pretty crowd-pleasing slogan.
The conversation about what to do about it will quickly become very complicated, though, so the talk will probably soon get back to Russia and health care and all the rest of the stuff Trump would rather not talk about.

— Bud Norman

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