Manufacture Or Borrow (Until We Can’t)

This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture as part of the Making It In America project. I am a Fellow with CAF.
When things are going wrong it is often good practice to go back and review the basics, and start again. In baseball you go back to batting and fielding practice. To master a musical instrument you practice your scales every day.
Things have gone wrong with our economy. So let’s go back to some basics and see if we can figure out where we went wrong. Let’s start with the most basic of basics in an economy: wealth comes from making things that you can trade with others.
It is a simple concept worth repeating: if you make something you can trade it for things other people make. As you make things and trade them you build wealth. In an economy making and trading things creates good jobs and brings to the people income and goods they need.
So obviously manufacturing is the key to a healthy economy. Trade means fairly trading the things you manufacture for things that others manufacture. And it is a simple jump from there to understanding that if you don’t make things you have to borrow to be able to pay for things other people make, or you go without. You can borrow and borrow – until you can’t.
Everything else in the economy flows from the manufacturing. When it comes down to it you can’t have a healthy service sector unless you are manufacturing items to sell and trade because you can’t pay for the restaurant bill or insurance or hotel room or lawyer or even the doctor if you don’t make something to sell and trade. And mostly you can’t keep buying the things made elsewhere. You can only borrow for so long.
But somehow as country we have lost sight of this most basic idea. Instead of maintaining and promoting manufacturing we say it isn’t important anymore. We say that we have instead transitioned to a “post-industrial” service economy and/or a knowledge / information economy. (What does that even mean — instead of making and trading, we serve and think? And borrow I guess.)

I read an important post about this yesterday, It’s All About Jobs! by Leo Hindery, Jr., Leo W. Gerard and Sen. Don Riegle – a CEO, a labor leader, and a former Senator. They come to us from these different sectors of society to warn us that giving up our manufacturing has meant giving up our jobs. They wrote,

“Importantly, we need to be just as worried about the fact that our economy has mostly hemorrhaged jobs in the very sector — manufacturing — that must grow in order for us to move permanently away from debt-financed consumption as the principal engine of economic growth. And it is the current and now decades-long persistent manufacturing jobs collapse that unites the three of us as friends and as colleagues, despite coming from very different backgrounds.”

And how do they feel our country’s “transition” away from a manufacturing economy is working out for us?

“Just since this recession began, manufacturing has lost 13% of its workforce; manufacturing industries now represent a meager 11.7% of GDP; people working in manufacturing now account for only 8.7% of the jobs in the country; a quarter of the nation’s 282,000 remaining manufacturing companies — 90,000 in all — are now deemed severely “at risk”; and we have run an average annual trade deficit in manufactured goods of more than $500 billion over the past five years.”

What do they say we need to do about this?

“Congress and the Administration, working together, need to immediately enact a robust industrial policy that puts American workers first and is comparable to the policies of our major trading partners. And then we need to integrate this policy with efforts to be the world’s dominant manufacturer of green technologies and components, which offer us such enormous opportunities.”

So again back to basics: Trade requires giving and getting. And you can’t trade FOR things without having things TO trade. Which means that you have to have manufacturing. The more you have manufacturing, the stronger your economy. Pretty basic, no?
As I said above, it is a basic that if you don’t make things to trade you can, for a while, borrow to buy the things that others make. And for some time, since we started this transition to the “post-industrial” economy we all have been borrowing to buy the things we need. Individual, business and government debt started increasing rapidly at the same time as people started believing that we were undergoing such a transition. Our trade deficit has shot up through the roof, and now we collectively now owe a tremendous, massive debt to others.
But guess what? When you have a lot of debt, someone is making a lot of money. In The Quiet Coup, Simon Johnson writes,

From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent. In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade, it reached 41 percent.

Paul Krugman has noted a similar trend,

On the eve of the current crisis, finance and insurance accounted for 8 percent of G.D.P., more than twice their share in the 1960s. By early last year, the Dow contained five financial companies — giants like A.I.G., Citigroup and Bank of America.

Ethan Porter, reviewing Kevin Phillips’ book, Bad Money, drives the point home,

In 1950, manufacturing contributed 29.3 percent to the GDP, and financial services 10.9 percent. By 2003, the totals were almost reversed: manufacturing made a 12.7 percent contribution; financial services, 20.5 percent.
[. . .] All this is a fancy way of saying that we don’t make things anymore. We import most of our products from overseas.

So what they are saying is that what we have been doing, namely packing up our factories and sending them to the trading partner countries, isn’t “trade” it is something else. (The word “stupid” suggests itself.) And as a result of doing that we have a massive, massive “trade deficit.” We buy things but we don’t sell enough things because we don’t make enough things anymore. And over time this means we get poorer and poorer. We borrow more and more, which drives up profits in the financial sector – while the borrowing continues. That can only go on so long.
So here is the question that we face: what are we going to do about it? And by we, I mean We,the People. So what’s the plan? What is our plan, our strategy, our policy for rebuilding and maintaining our manufacturing base? We obviously have a national financial strategy (a strategy that involves even more borrowing to execute) but none for getting back to the basics of creating wealth by manufacturing things.
Having a national policy for manufacturing is about as basic as it gets. China does. India does. Japan does. Russia does. France does. Germany does. Et Ceterastan does.
What is America’s manufacturing policy? What is our strategy? What is our plan?

5 thoughts on “Manufacture Or Borrow (Until We Can’t)

  1. Et Ceterastan, good one. I may borrow that from you. Dave I would vote for you to be on the trade committee. Nothing else, but that’s a start. What you are saying here is right. I think it is not something that can be argued because it is THAT obvious what is wrong. So why aren’t the jokes in Washington addressing this? Because they are all in bed with Wallstreet and getting rich by all this nonsense. Not one of them are untouched by corruption. We need to get our own factories back to work and make cheap but quality products that we can sell locally to our own people and make it so good that other countries will want in. We can do this, but those boys (and some questionable women) in Washington don’t want that. It would endanger their bank accounts. The people need to take back their government,and fix this.

  2. “So why aren’t the jokes in Washington addressing this? Because they are all in bed with Wallstreet and getting rich by all this nonsense.”
    Exactly. Corruption has set in. When corporate money is able to be used to influence politics, the political process rots.
    And recognize that it isn’t about “business” it is about being paid off by CERTAIN businesses. The businesses that are already large want to stifle innovation and hold on to their position. For example, paid by Big Oil to keep solar and wind out. Paid by big Wall Street firms to stifle smaller, innovative banks, etc.
    So HOW do we take back the government once it is corrupted by the influencers?

  3. This is a hard issue because we have no idea in our wildest imaginations just how far the corruption has set in. Its bad. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is recognize that this issue affects both parties negatively. So we got to come together on it and say “NO.” We need to be really scrutinizing the people we are electing, regardless of party, and ask them specific questions regarding this and if they hee-haw around a solid answer, let them know that is not acceptable. We need to be talking about this with people around us and in our communities because this is such a vital issue that has been largely ignored for some reason that is beyond me. People just havnt thought about it. I personally think the best thing we can do is to get in on the new green products. This is a market that is going to blow up and the US should be on the ground floor. Not only will it allow us to have a viable market but it will keep prices low for our own citizens (in theory, the corruption quotient could come into play here) and therefor, more readily available for them to USE. 2 birds one stone kind of deal. Legislation needs to be drawn that will control these types of unethical practices (moving factories to other countries for example.) This issue is more vital than healthcare, but no one is talking about it. Wonder why? The MEDIA couldnt be in on this corruption, could it? Oh no. Not the MEDIA. People need to wake UP.

  4. willikers,
    We are already WAY behind other countries in green jobs. We just lost 8 years because of corruption by the big oil and coal companies blocking our government from formulating an energy policy that looked at alternatives. Yes, the Repubican Party took money from oil companies. Remember “Drill, baby drill?”
    For example, China makes wind turbines – and requires at least 70% “domestic content” in them. (China does this a lot, but we don’t.)
    GE just decided to buy from China even though a US supplier outbid the Chinese supplier, because GE wants a share of that 30%…

  5. The government — I don’t know what other agency can accomplish the job — must impose harsh and unpopular trade sanctions. If this country is to return to a profitable manufacturing core, imports of many products need to be curtailed or severely controlled .
    President Obama said in a major speech this week that he doesn’t want to buy wind mills or electric cars from overseas; he wants to manufacture them in the U.S. Sounds good to me. The only problem is how do we, as a nation, accomplish this?
    Rather than throw more and more money at the financial sector, large investments in basic manufacturing will be necessary. All products relating to renewable energy should be declared national priorities which must be manufactured in the U. S. by an American work force. Rather than spend billions on useless and unneeded weapon systems, the government should be investing in manufacturing endeavors benefiting American workers and new industries. Defense workers can make wind mills and solar panels rather than redundant fighter planes, like the F-22 Raptor and V-22 Osprey.

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