“But paying is part of the game of life: it is the joy of buying that we crave.”
There was a time when America, in all of her glory, had the market cornered with regard to all things manufactured. If one were to buy some sort of ware, chances were pretty good that it was made somewhere in the good ole U.S of A. So what happened? Who took all those jobs for which we now clamor? And what’s more, whose ideas or habits caused this gradual decline whose death blow came so suddenly…or so it would seem?
After the war to end all wars (no not that one, the one after that), there were a plethora of factories that, with a little retro-fitting, would be made to turn out any widget man could imagine and Madison Avenue could convince us of our need. The automobile industry, for example, was a widgeteer (new word alert) that held the imaginations of hard working Americans whose fingers longed for the feel of the brass ring, and a Bakelite steering wheel. Not only did it hold their imaginations, but the massive production line jobs that it provided gave newly returned G.I.s a sense of hope, an expectation that they could finance their own personal American dream. It wasn’t just the “Big Three”—a name given to the biggest players in American car manufacture: Chevrolet, Ford, and Chrysler—that offered these jobs, there were a metric-turd-ton of parts houses who built different components for all of the big three. None of whom did things exactly the same way. A single car maker, say Ford, would have three different manufactures—and designs—for a component as simple as a power-steering pump. This is a problem with which I became familiar when I needed to change out a pump on a 1965 Ford wagon I once owned. This unnecessary variation was as much a source for readily available jobs as it was a source of frustration to those “shade tree” mechanics who maintained their own vehicles, frustrations caused by non-integrated design and relative cost fluctuation. It was a clunky business model.
Perhaps this utopia could’ve lasted in to perpetuity, had there not been other countries designing similar conveyances with a differing philosophy about maintenance and repair. Japanese and German car makers had a much more efficient way of building their cars and a more convenient model of manufacturing when it came to the needs of the home mechanics upon whom the responsibility fell to maintain said cars. We were not impressed, we were Americans after all and we would be damned if we were going to pump our hard earned American dollars into the godless economies of our sworn enemies. That was until the oil embargo of the 1970s. “Toyota you say?” “Yes, I will look into that promptly.” And promptly we did. America began to design their cars in similar fashion in order to compete in the open market, these efforts worked to reduce costs and passed the savings on to the consumer who demanded a value for his hard-won ducket. Of course these practices started shutting down parts production plants left and right. Towns whose economies were based upon the demand for parts (made in the former inefficient, worker-friendly manner) began to look like proto-typical landscapes of dystopian sci-fi futures. “The future is now!” Then the biggest value of them all came down the pike: foreign labor. It became obvious that there were people all over the world who would make the little widgets we loved and needed for pennies on the dollar, compared to their American counterparts. “How dare you turn on us capitalism”, we shouted dispassionately. “We gave you a home, and this is how you treat us?!” Alas, the damage was done; America had voted with her pocketbook. Soon the entire middle of the country was so devastated by this famine of employment that window manufacturers began designing windows that were just made of ply-wood. Why not? They were destined to be ply-wood anyway…soon. Graffiti artists from sea to shining sea came to submit their designs for the new ply-wood windows…it was the beginning of an economic recovery. But it was not to last. Home-Depot had cheaper ply-wood made from timber that America had sold to Japan 40 years prior.
The automotive industry is just one example; others included our inability to produce the high quality electronic products that our discerning tastes demanded. We made a good run at T.V.s and radios but were quickly left to befriend our former enemies, if for no other reason than, to get our hands on a high-end stereo or VCR or DVD player. Soon we became disillusioned over American T.V.s and radios as well. You couldn’t pay us to care anymore. American made cell-phones were a simple joke with no punch-line. “Certainly it was those devils across the ocean that brought this evil upon our heads…a pox…a pox!” This was the mantra, the war-cry we began to repeat at backyard barbeques, in the midst of dinner parties, and in the long, long lines at the local Super Wal-Mart.
One might accuse me of over-simplifying this story. Certainly it is possible, and I have no problem entertaining the idea. I’ve tossed together an abstraction of American history spanning 60 plus years in around 1000 words, my intent wasn’t to give a careful analysis of the economic status of the U.S. It was simply to give a broader look at what drives its economy, our economy.
I often hear people complaining about how things are now made in Mexico, and Korea, and China. Who did this to us? Who has the power? If free-market capitalism is the “democracy of the pocket-book”, that we’ve been taught it is, upon whose shoulders rests the responsibility of our undoing? We voted, and now we are demanding a re-count; just so long as it can be done at a reasonable cost.
There is a certain ironic beauty to the idea that I’m affluent enough to choose from a large selection of low-priced phones, on which I can read news stories of south-east Asian people dying of cancers and other maladies caused by building the very phone in my hand, and then use said phone to call my friend and bitch about the fact that I never stood a chance to get that manufacturing job, thanks to those dirty devils across the ocean. What a beautiful country and I mean that only slightly sarcastically. I have no doubt that the bulk of Americans would march—in lock-step—into the local big-box store and buy an American-made smart-phone. That is, if its southeast Asian counterpart wasn’t sitting right next to it. Until we the people vote our conscience with our pocket-books we will always be the home of low-cost, because of the brave. It is also important to note that this is not some patriotic call to demand American made products. I’m no patriot and I don’t care what type of products you buy…It would just be nice if everyone else would stop pretending that they care.