On a recent Sunday morning talk show, syndicated columnist George Will opined that concern over the de-industrialization of America was overblown. As evidence, Will cited the fact that television sets are still made in America. Mr. Will needs to re-evaluate his stance on de-industrialization.
Pier One is a retail chain that specializes in imported goods for the home. Today every store is like Pier One. I would challenge Mr. Will to walk through any department store – Kmart, Kohls, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Target, Nordstrom’s – and see if he can find anything made in the U.S. About all there is to find are vacuum cleaners made by the Hoover Corporation in Canton, Ohio.
At one time we made everything in this country. My family recently discarded a Stromberg Carlson television that had been sitting in the basement since the 1960s. Yes, at one time you could buy a TV set, stereo equipment, cameras and other electronics made by any number of American companies – RCA, Philco, General Electric are three that come to mind but there were many others.
America used to have a robust textile industry. How many of us remember those Burlington Industries television advertisements? At its peak, Burlington had 84,000 employees in 11 countries. Burlington Industries entered bankruptcy in 2001 and the company’s assets were acquired by International Textile Group in 2003. When people hear the name Burlington today, they think of Burlington Coat Factory – an outlet store. Not the same thing.
We will not survive as a nation without a robust manufacturing base. Since 2001, America has lost nearly 40,000 manufacturing and assembly factories. Those 40,000 factories produced everything from cars to can openers and employed millions of people in good paying white collar and blue collar jobs.
America and its allies won World War II in Detroit, not on the battlefield. The Nazis had better planes, better tanks, better guns – and better generals. America was victorious because we out-produced the Nazis and overwhelmed them with sheer numbers of ships, tanks, planes and guns.
Fortunately we still have a strong aerospace industry in the U.S. – but for how long is an open question. America’s premiere air frame manufacturer is Boeing. Boeing’s chief competitor is Airbus Industrie. How many people know Airbus is actually a consortium of companies backed by European governments? Boeing is a private company that must compete head to head with France, Germany, Spain and England.
How to create wealth
No human activity creates wealth more efficiently than manufacturing. Here’s how it works: The raw materials – steel, plastic, rubber, etc. that make up an average automobile are worth $400 at the most. Turn those raw materials into a car and they increase in value. If the car is a Shelby GT 500, $65,000.00.
The people who designed those cars, manufactured the parts and then assembled those parts into a finished product received paychecks. With those paychecks they bought new cars, clothes, homes, groceries, big screen TVs and sent their kids to college. That’s how the middle class was born. That’s how people, communities – and nations become prosperous.
Growing the middle class
Economists say there was a vacuum in the U.S. when imported automobiles and other goods were kept out of the American market but people weren’t deprived when America had a robust domestic auto industry. Quite the contrary. Along with automotive manufacturing, America had a solid base of manufacturing for everything from shoes to furniture to cameras to television sets. And a growing middle class.
Not only was America was prosperous — there was ample opportunity for upward mobility for average persons. In Detroit, for example, people graduated from high school, found good paying jobs in any one of dozens of manufacturing companies and joined the middle class.
Some companies started their own trade schools. In Ford Motor Company’s Dearborn Rouge complex, the Henry Ford Trade School trained factory workers to become tool and die makers, electricians, millwrights and pipefitters. Any Ford employee could start working on the factory floor as a laborer, then become an apprentice tool and die maker and later, learn drafting and metallurgy and eventually become a salaried engineer.
Sadly, that path to the middle class is no longer available. The Henry Ford Trade School opened in 1916 and graduated more than 8,000 tradesmen before it closed in 1952.
Ford wasn’t the only company that “grew its own.” General Motors operated its own engineering college, the General Motors Institute, known then as GMI, and now as Kettering University.
De-industrialization coming to your city
As manufacturers close up shop or move offshore, high paying manufacturing jobs that come with health care and defined benefit pension plans are rapidly disappearing. At the same time, increasing numbers of young people are incurring mountains of student loan debt with no guarantee their degree will lead to a high paying job. Or any job.
Quick fixes in the form of glitzy sports stadiums, casinos and trendy bistros cannot provide the kind of jobs that will revitalize economically depressed big cities. The way to revitalize is to re-industrialize.
An informative documentary on the subject of de-industrialization is “Detropia,” released in 2012. While the film’s focus is mainly on the city of Detroit, the film attributes Detroit’s decline to the larger issue of de-industrialization. The last line in the film is “De-industrialization – coming soon to your town.”