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PARALLEL UNIVERSE: Manufacturing an Endangered Species in U.S.; We’re Going to Pay in Long Run

Posted by kinchendavid on January 3, 2007

By David M. Kinchen
Editor, Huntington News Network

Hinton, WV  – I celebrated the new year by buying a new back saw – the kind of hand saw designed for use in a miter box. I use it for general woodworking and for my hobby of crafting wooden pens on my lathe. It’s a lot safer – and more precise – than using power tools.

Purchased at Hinton Hardware, the 14-inch saw was – to my surprise – made in the U.S.A. “with domestic and imported components.” I’m guessing that the steel business end of the saw was imported, with maybe the hardwood handle made in this country!

A week or so ago, New York Times reporter Louis Uchitelle wrote about the decline and disappearance of manufacturing in the U.S. All of my power tools – lathe, drill press, band saw, etc., etc. – are imported. When I was a high school shop rat back in the 1950s in Illinois – I was such an avid one that I ended up with a college major in English and a 40-semester-hour minor in industrial arts – everything was proudly stamped “Made in the U.S.A.”

Uchitelle writes: “American manufacturers no longer make subway cars. They are imported now, and the skills required to make them are disappearing in the United States. Similarly, imports are an ever-bigger source of refrigerators, household furnishings, auto and aircraft parts, machine tools and a host of everyday consumer products much in demand in America, but increasingly not made here.”

He adds: “Import penetration, as it is called, worried economists and policymakers when it first became noticeable 20 years ago. Many considered factory production a crucial component of the nation’s wealth and power. As imports gained ground, however, that view changed; the experts shifted the emphasis from production to design and innovation. Let others produce what Americans think up.”

The New Jersey city of Trenton was so proud of its manufacturing base that in 1935 it erected a sign on the bridge over the Delaware River connecting the city with Morrisville, PA (pictured): “TRENTON MAKES … THE WORLD TAKES” reads the sign — which Amtrak travelers to New York City can see if they’re looking carefully. (I bet some of those Amtrak passenger cars are made in Canada or elsewhere).

After quoting economists about the importance of design over actually producing the necessary widgets, Uchitelle asks the billion-dollar question: “…over the long run, can invention and design be separated from production?”

He goes on to say that that question is rarely asked these days. Instead, he notes, “the debate instead centers on the loss of well-paying factory jobs and on the swelling trade deficit in manufactured goods. When the linkage does come up, the answer is surprisingly affirmative: Yes, invention and production are intertwined.”

Of course they are! I was surprised to learn the other day that the local high school no longer has industrial arts classes. I learned this from the former-shop-teacher- owner of Hinton Hardware, itself an endangered breed in this era of big box home centers. We’re blessed with experts at this store: The owner sells hardware items, but he also knows enough to suggest solutions to me. Kids grow up today not knowing the joys of creating objects from raw materials. It’s one of the things that keeps me mentally healthy and young for my chronological age, or so people tell me.

Uchitelle, whose book “The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences” I reviewed favorably in May 2006 — here’s a link: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/060521-kinchen-review.html — quotes two experts on manufacturing, Stephen S. Cohen and Franklin J. Vargo, who respectfully disagree with those who say it doesn’t matter if we don’t make things any more: “’Most innovation does not come from some disembodied laboratory,’” said … Cohen, co-director of the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy at the University of California, Berkeley. “’In order to innovate in what you make, you have to be pretty good at making it — and we are losing that ability.’”

Cohen, Uchitelle says, was a co-author of a1987 book “Manufacturing Matters” that was an early warning about our disappearing manufacturing base. This is something that means a lot to me, since I grew up in two once mighty manufacturing states: Michigan (until the age of 10) and Illinois.

Uchitelle: “… even the National Association of Manufacturers, which is supportive of members like Whirlpool [based in Benton Harbor, MI, about 40 miles from where I lived] and General Electric who shift production abroad, agrees that sooner or later innovation and production must go hand in hand.

“Franklin J. Vargo, the association’s vice president for international economic affairs, sounds even more concerned than Mr. Cohen. ‘If manufacturing production declines in the United States at some point we will go below critical mass and then the center of innovation will shift outside the country and that will really begin a decline in our living standards.’”

We’ve already seen this decline as the relatively high paying manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas – or south of the border – replaced by service jobs that pay a fraction of what manufacturing jobs contribute to the domestic economy.

Economists and other defenders of outsourcing don’t think it matters if we still make widgets on our home territory, but Uchitelle says that people like “Alan Tonelson, a research fellow at the United States Business and Industry Council, argues that in this country, import penetration is rising faster in core industries like machine-tool building than it is in other countries. And these are the industries that are, or should be, centers of innovation and invention.”

Tonelson’s efforts to document the disappearing jobs are part of his job, Uchitelle reports: “His organization represents small manufacturers who keep production at home much more than a General Electric or a Whirlpool. They suffer from import penetration more than the multinationals. The Business and Industry Council even favors tariffs as a protective measure — a red flag for many mainstream Democrats and Republicans, who shun any suggestion that they might be protectionist.”

Exploring individual industries, Tonelson finds that the U.S. is importing more than 50 percent “and in some cases close to 90 percent – of the machine tools used in this country, the aircraft engines and engine parts, the parts that go into cars and trucks, the industrial valves, the printed circuits, the optical instruments and lenses, the telephone switching apparatus, the machines that mold plastics, the broadcasting equipment used for radio, television and wireless transmissions. The list goes on.”

The clincher, in my opinion: Tonelson argues that “It is hard to imagine how an international economy can remain successful if it jettisons its most technologically advanced components.”

Exactly! Without domestic manufacturing, we up the proverbial creek without a paddle – because the paddle is probably imported.

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