It has been 40 years since we last seriously considered a strategy to grow and support the manufacturing industry and its jobs.
The late 1970s is remembered for high interest rates, anemic economic growth and omnipresent international crises. Lost in the collective memory were the devastating body blows suffered by manufacturing. A near maniacal focus on interest rates, inflation and budget austerity distracted our attention from staggering manufacturing job loss, wave upon wave of plant closures and punishing foreign competition.
The 1980s offered no relief.
Foreign competition ran roughshod over domestic producers. Cheap imports, a war on labor and the Reagan tax cuts made matters worse. The gilded mantra, “greed is good,” spilled into popular culture as Wall Street paved over Main Street, financializing every economic sector. Short-term profits, shareholder dividends and market share would be our lodestar — not strong industry, rising productivity and good jobs.
A clear national industry policy that made manufacturing and good jobs a priority could have stopped the carnage.
It is high time we adopted a national industrial strategy.
First, bring labor to the table and keep them there. In this era of management churn and revolving ownership, those at the top know less of their actual business then their forebears. Labor is a storehouse of institutional knowledge and an indispensable strategic asset. Management would be wise to fully engage them in their business.
Second, direct public resources into one national program to build industrial capacity and end the inimical competition for jobs between cities and states. In exchange for public support, require manufacturers to make more goods here.
Third, place a moratorium on new trade agreements and cancel current deals that do not put U.S. industry and jobs on a level playing field. Opening U.S. markets without reciprocal agreements is unwise and unfair.
Finally, target what the late economist William Blaumol and former IBM executive Ralph Gomory call “retainable industries” like automotive, steel and paper. They took a long time and a lot of money to build. They are foundational to our economic health and community identity — “Motown,” “Steelers,” and “Papermakers.” Shouldn’t they be our top priority?
In 1980, it was the AFL-CIO that presciently argued for strategic investments in plant modernization and technological development. Today it is obvious which economies heeded such advice and which did not. In the words of the late United Steelworkers president Lynn Williams: “Without change we do not progress. Change requires vision and courage. But the perils of resisting it and never challenging the status quo … are immense.”
We reap what we sow.
Thomas Nelson is the county executive in Outagamie County.
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