restoring America

I have a lot of tools. I have more than a normal person should, I think.  My collection of tools is based on one part frugality (I can save money by (thinking) I can fix it myself), one part wastefulness (I NEED a specialty picture-hanging hook that looks JUST so) and one part optimism (I am going to be Mr. Family-Man-Fixer-Upper)  Nonetheless, most of my tools have one unifying characteristic – they were made cheaply overseas.

Go to the store sometime (particularly if you have a KMart/Wal-Mart/Target nearby) and look at where stuff is made. It’s all made somewhere else.  Same thing goes for a Home Depot or a Lowe’s – half of my tools are made in Malaysia or China.  Maybe more than half.  Almost all, to be honest.

But I have a few tools that are different. My grandparents moved from their house into an apartment years ago when it became difficult for my grandfather to deal with basic maintenance of the yard and exterior.  He kept a few basic tools, but for the most part he gave away the tools he had accumulated over his life, many of them to me.  I have a huge pile of them, and they are amazing:

  • A hammer that feels like it was owned by John Henry
  • Screwdrivers that are old and dark with age but still have unblemished heads that easily turn the worst, worn-down screws
  • A Yankee drill that after decades of heavy use still punches through metal with nothing more than manual force – no electricity or batteries.
  • A saw that cuts cleanly and straight despite being older than I am.
  • And on and on.

All of these tools have words stamped on them which look almost alien. “Made in New Hampshire.”  “Made inOhio.”  “American-made.”  I even have one that says “Made in New York.”  Imagine – tools made in New York state.  Seeing a tool that was made of American steel, cast in an American plant and assembled without a touch of plastic seems otherworldly.  I can always tell these tools because they have the feel of weight, certainty and permanence.

I compare that of course to the cheap plastic junk you can buy today. I had a cheap hammer (I NEEDED a special small hammer) whose head flew off while I was hammering.  I have gone through dozens of inexpensive small screwdrivers, always returning to the solid, heavy old ones when the new ones have stripped another screw’s head.  The difference is clear, and I am sure that when I am too old to do work around the house I will also pass down those tools to my children and keep a few inexpensive “modern” screwdrivers around my old-age home to fix  a loose screw once in a while.

The easy path is to berate cheap junk from China or bemoan the death of American industriousness or sneer at unions. China is guiltless, in this case.  Americans have demonstrated for a generation now that they would rather buy a new hammer for $9.99 every few years than buy one that would last a lifetime for $29.99.  China simply meets that need.  American industry has died for the same reason.   Unions didn’t drive American manufacturing out of business – Chinese forced labor and near-poverty-level wages did.  Blaming unions is foolish, as is imagining that Americans won’t work hard.  America’s still in the top 10 countries in the world in terms of productivity and working hours.

But given today’s economic situation, “Buy American” is no longer a convenient political slogan or a union-driven message. It doesn’t have to mean “Hate overseas manufacturers” or “Save American jobs” or even “Union Yes.”  But what it does have to mean is that soon “Buy American” will be a necessity if you don’t want to live in a totally dependent nation.  You can read every day about the exciting new jobs that we will soon have – high-tech jobs in green technology, for example.  But those jobs don’t provide a true basis for our society.  Think about it this way:  forty years ago, give or take a few years, this statement would not have made most people blink:

“A man who works at a skilled job in a manufacturing facility can provide a decent living for his family.  His wife can stay home if she wishes while the children are small.  The husband will be able to send his children to college without incurring massive student debt.  He will be able to buy a home.  He and his wife will have enough saved to retire at the end of his career at the facility, and still be able to pass some on to their children.”

Making that statement in 2011 seems ludicrous. Maybe this is where Occupy Wall Street has arisen.  When did it all change?  When “Buy American” faded into memory.  Trade barriers and sloganeering won’t ever bring us back to where we were, but Americans have to face an ugly fact:  Wal-Mart and the federal government are our two biggest employers and our future is that of a service economy – service workers serving other service workers, with a few “elite” knowledge workers.  “Knowledge” jobs can be exported even more easily than manufacturing jobs, whose export was (and still is) at least fought by what remains of America’s unions.  No protestors will march outside the gates when Megacorp outsources the billing department to Armenia.  No union will fight sending Tommy Accountant’s job to India.  If you work at a job where most of your day is spent around a computer, you have to realize this:  you have no skill – none – that cannot be duplicated and performed over the internet by someone without the protection of minimum wage, health and safety regulations and other protections.  I can be replaced, and as companies get smarter, I will be.  Everything I do could be done far more cheaply by someone else over the Internet.   And I can’t blame companies under short-term pressure to deliver profits to shareholders if departments are outsourced – and I don’t blame India or China or the Phillipines for being there to pick up the work.

And as for financial services, our last great “industry”: I see no reason not to expect Dubai, or Shanghai, or even some yet-up-and-coming place like Yerevan or Almaty to become the next great financial center. Why should New York be special in the financial world?  Lunch, mostly.  People still like to go out for a New York-y lunch.  But almost every person I knew in New York works at a knowledge job.  I could work remotely on a project overseas (and have) and I have done NOTHING in the last ten years that I could not have done if I were living in Kansas City, or Houston, or Vancouver.  In the last five, I have done nothing I could not have done if I were living in Moscow, Russia, or Moscow, Tennessee.

I pick up those old tools, then, and wonder if the men (and women) who made them would recognize America today, an America that looks a little bit too much like the passengers in “Wall-E” for comfort. I know we had problems a couple of generations ago – women and minorities did not have the opportunities they do today – but a hammer made in New Hampshire meant jobs for our communities and a good tool that lasted for generations.  Those people work at Wal-Mart today, most likely.  Maybe that’s OK – maybe America is the first real “post-work” society, content to work at Wal-Mart so they can go buy cheap stuff at Wal-Mart on the weekends.  I hope not. I hope people will get angry when Citigroup or AIG or Morgan Stanley outsource another department overseas using taxpayer money to do it.  I hope people will get angry when banks are bailed out and car companies are left to die.   Whether or not you feel the car companies need to be saved, they certainly deserve to be bailed out as much as the banks did.  It may be almost too late to buy American, but it’s important to remember that this economic avalanche will not be stopped through anything other than action at the personal level, and that action has to start with making a choice every time you buy something… it’s something to think about during 2012.

photo Attribution Some rights reserved by Beverly & Pack

One Reply to “restoring America”

  1. You missed a few points. We Americans were brainwashed to believe that foreign cars, such as Honda and Toyota were made better than American cars. This started our decline. Americans in droves bought foreign cars. It’s was slicker and hip to drive a BMW or Mercedes rather than our own luxury Cadillac brands.

    If there is anyone to blame for our own decline, it is ourselves.

    Personally, since 1966, starting with my first Mustang, I have only bought Ford vehicles. Period. And I further realized our stupidity when I went to Paris in 2006 and Italy in 2007 only to find that most chic Parisians and Italians were driving Fords! Especially the Ford Focus. In Paris, they are thee taxi of the year! So, upon my return from Europe I bought TWO Ford Focuses and the cars, without being hybrid or whatever, get me over 40 mph on highways! True, classic American technology. And NO government bailouts!

    Also, back in 1998, I supported and backed Apple Computer, Inc. Barely three weeks away from Newsweek calling Apple bankrupt, I gave up my high-powered job at a law firm to sell Apple Computers to the masses. I first had to educate people that Apple was a great company. How many other Americans have done something like that?

    Now, look at Apple. America’s leading corporation in the world.

    If you want to blame something, other than ourselves, for America’s decline, you must blame Wall Street. In order to increase profits for their stock holders, they bought up companies, raped them, split them and did whatever they could to increase their bottom line. And if that means shutting American factories and farming out the work to slaves, that’s what they did. And we Americans, like jerks, let them do it. After all, who in this audience, doesn’t own a 401K or retirement fund based on the stock market? I don’t. I haven’t invested in Wall Street since 2001 and the dot com disaster. Who else can make that statement? Want to destroy Wall Street? Don’t Occupy them. Deny them your hard earned money. Without money, they whither and die. But everyone wants those dividend or increased retirement funds, right?

    Want to have a guaranteed job: go into service, like a plumber, electrician, something that can’t be done by a robot, over the internet or oversees. Something that needs a human body to perform. As far as I know, the human body hasn’t been replaced yet. Don’t hire illegal aliens to do anything in this country. Don’t fool yourself and think an American citizen will NOT pick apples for $7 an hour. Trust me. They will! Especially if they’ve been out of work, benefits and are nearing starvation. We should be teaching our children that NOTHING in this world is beneath them.

    My husband is an electrician/plumber/installer of anything and last week one of the chinese joints on a plumbing job he did, failed. The joint opened at the seam and water was starting to leak under the floor boards. He caught it in time, but if he hadn’t it would have been a disaster. Same with the new chinese made wheel joints coming on the new cars. The joints are failing, which if unchecked, will lead to catastrophic disaster on the open road. The wheel will fall of the car during use. Nice. Very nice.

    And should we forget the poisoned dog food? The rancid baby food? Or baby formula……all coming out of china???? How many dogs, cats and animals died at the hands of improper chinese animal feeds? Or how many children have become sickened over chinese crap? How did the chinese government handle this? They executed the workers responsible. And yet, we are forced, yes forced to buy chinese products as more and more American, ethical products are taken off our markets.

    Look at solar? It is because of the price undercutting of china that Solydra went out of business, losing the American government $533million tax dollars. And now, today, we won’t be able to buy American light bulbs because under the new laws, we are forced to buy chinese made, energy efficient light bulbs.

    We Americans are stupid people. We think foreighners crap is better than our own. Want to save American jobs? Then support only American made products, such as your hairdresser, local merchant, local produce and local farmers, car mechanic, postal worker, electricians, plumbers, installers, anyone who has to use their hands and physical labor to get the job done. Insist on American-made products. It’s not too late. Remember chinese comp board used to build Florida homes? It was declared defective, causing mold and sickness in humans. The demand for American comp board was a boost to American companies.

    If we all start demanding American products, buying American cars, Apple products, etc. we are boosting American companies, American jobs. We should be the leaders selling OUR products throughout the world. NOT the other way around.

    Good luck. We Americans aren’t done yet. But it’s pretty damn near close.

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