I hate it when I’m right…

Posted: September 16, 2011 in California, China, Economy, Jobs, Politics

In a previous post, I laid out what I thought would be the best possible jobs program that had the proverbial snowball’s chance of actually creating jobs and generating economic growth. My rationale exhibited elements of both Keynesian thought (government spending) and Reagan-esque/Tea Party mantra (people working will generate revenue which will go back into the economy, thereby creating more jobs, and create more revenue, and so on and so on). I know that Democrats would be less than enthused about the idea of spending the money on private sector firms and letting them do business with as little regulatory impediment as possible. Conversely, I know that Republicans would be every bit as frustrated at the notion of further government spending on giant public works projects. Frankly, it is that element of annoying those on both sides of the aisle that tells me I might actually be onto a workable idea.

So. Having finished up a good workout at the gym, I decided to see what was happening in the world and fired up NPR’s website. The top center article was an article about the SF/Oakland Bay Bridge project undertaken by Caltrans. The focus of the article wasn’t that it was a prime example of the type of long-term infrastructure project that I (and President Obama) have talked about. Rather, the focus of the article was that a good portion of the fabrication and manufacturing work was outsourced to China. In the article, California Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) states, “When you have a project of that size here in California, it has a multiplier effect…it gives thousands of families those jobs, and then those paychecks and their subsequent spending ends up going back into our economy. And so now all that money has permanently disappeared from California.” That certainly sounds familiar…and it’s a Democrat that’s agreeing with me! In the article, it noted that the contractor who won the bid was approximately $400 million cheaper than the next bidder, partially due to the fact that (as an example) Chinese steel polishers make approximately $12 per day. A district director for the United Steelworkers Union noted that it was impossible for American workers to compete with workers earning only $12 per day. And he’s correct.

In the course of dissecting the unemployment figures, there have been discussions floating around the media and the internet (Linkedin is a prime source) as to whether America needs to revive/maintain its manufacturing base. Personally, as you may have surmised, I fall into the camp of revive/maintain. I feel this way for several reasons (many of those out of work come from manufacturing-related industries, manufacturing breeds innovation, without a manufacturing base we become a contributory economy, without manufacturing we become dependent on/at risk from other countries for our manufactured goods, etc.), but I’m not blind to the fact that manufacturing in the US has a hard time competing on a global stage. On one hand, you’ve got places like Malaysia, India, and yes, China paying their workers a microscopic percentage of what US workers make, while the government not only subsidizes the companies’ work but also passes all sorts of regulatory measures designed to maximize protection and competitiveness of those same companies. China even requires foreign companies who want to do business in their markets to enter into an agreement with a local firm (who would otherwise likely be a competitor), usually involving some level of ownership interest by the Chinese firm in the foreign firm (very true in the Chinese automotive industry, for example). On the other hand, businesses actually operating in the US are subject to extremely rigorous regulations in the financial, labor, and environmental elements of business, not to mention much of the manufacturing work is done in union shops. Where other countries minimize restrictions and maximize support, we seem to do the opposite.

It will certainly upset the true believer, free market members on the right, but it may be time to consider some protectionist actions. If nothing else, simply imposing increased import duties on imported products. Possibly even going all the way to sectoral reciprocity, where we would impose regulations/conditions/restrictions on products (for example) from China that were effectively identical to those that China would impose on similar products from the US. On the other hand (see, I’m really good at finding that middle ground that can piss everybody off!), I would certainly look at abolishing the unions. There may have been a time when they were genuinely effective at protecting workers, but the combination of the labor laws that are currently in place, the other regulations that govern the workplace (i.e. safety, environmental, etc.), and the seemingly instant transparency of the media (CNN, TMZ, Drudge Report, internet), I question whether the unions are genuinely necessary to ensure that the workers are not wholesale taken advantage of. On a semi-related note, there have been some new manufacturing jobs created, primarily in the automotive industry. Foreign automotive manufacturers from Toyota to Mercedes Benz to Hyundai to Volkswagen have set up major (and sometimes multiple) manufacturing facilities in the United States. And the one thing that most, if not all of them share…they are not unionized. And despite not being unionized, the workers at these manufacturing facilities don’t seem to be abused, exploited or otherwise placed in harm’s way or taken advantage of. As with other suggestions I’ve made, the majority of the ideas I’ve shared should ultimately be temporary in nature. Once the economy has found its footing and developed positive momentum, these measures should be slowly dialed back so as to restore general market activities.

Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that we are suffering a jobs crisis. Every economy needs some sort of core or base, and a base that consists of manufacturing and other similar/related uses ensures that not just the economy but society as a whole rests on a stable and supportive base. Even on a temporary basis, I believe that these types of measures can definitely have a positive effect and do it quickly


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