Commentary: Silent, Empty Plants
Now into the third year of what is being called The Great Recession, the United States still has the largest economy in the world and its people are better off on the whole than the people of any other nation. The economy has staggered but is lurching forward from its broad and diverse foundation.
The U.S. is still history’s greatest success story, but in the year 2010, it cannot provide jobs for more than 10 percent of its citizens who are ready to work. It owes billions of dollars to such nations as China and Japan; it imports $900 billion more in goods than it exports each year.
Since 2000, 42,000 U.S. factories have shut down with the corresponding loss of support jobs and whole towns that depended on the payroll of a single major industry.
The signal achievement of the U.S. in the years after the Great Depression was the development of a broad and prosperous middle class, whose members owned their own homes, or at least had a mortgage they could meet each month. They had automobiles. They were reliable consumers, who supported such stores as Rich’s, Sears and Mansour’s. They bought Oldsmobiles, Plymouths and Ford Fairlanes. Their money kept the economic wheels turning.
For nearly a century, the textile industry kept the wheels turning in West Georgia. But the mills were the first indicators of what the future would be. Textile jobs began moving to cheaper labor countries more than 40 years ago, first in a trickle, then in a rush, with other manufacturing jobs soon to follow. It’s estimated that the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. dropped to fewer than 12 million in 2009.
True, many of those manufacturing jobs were not pleasant to perform. But they financed the Great American Middle Class.
We are grateful for the Kia plant near West Point. It will employ nearly 3,000. But at their peak, the textile mills employed more than 10,000. The empty mills of West Point Pepperell on I-85, just down from the Kia plant, are reminders of that period.
Can the middle class make a comeback without the industrial base on which it was built? Industrial jobs generally paid more than the jobs replacing them, many of which are in the service industry. The U.S. is even dependent on foreign manufacturers for much of its technology and defense equipment.
The easy answer to the loss of jobs is that the wage scale in those other countries is much lower than in the U.S. as are employee benefits. But that is not true in all cases. The U.S. steel industry, for instance, says that it can produce a ton of steel in two man-hours compared to 12 man-hours in China. So why do we still buy steel from China?
Supporters of so-called free-trade and outsourcing have dominated political and industrial policy in recent years, and the Wall Street investors are not dismayed by the bleak landscape of American industry. They blame it on the government, and the government does share the blame. Its tax policies and tariff policies have encouraged the movement of industries and jobs offshore.
But the time of reckoning is at hand. Not every American can do a white-collar job. Computers, in fact, have replaced many white-collar positions. Public service jobs are being squeezed by the decline in local and state revenues.
Facing a similar crisis in 1933, President Frank-lin Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address said: “Our primary task is to put people back to work. International trade relations … are secondary to the establishment of a sound national economy.”
From that statement came the rough-hewn policies and momentum that created the greatest economy in history, and with it the indispensable American middle class that sustained that economy.
The government today needs someone like Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s invaluable lieutenant, who set up office in the hallway and in three months had put four million Americans to work building the nation’s modern infrastructure.
That was 77 years ago, and a lot of that infrastructure needs rebuilding and expanding. Could there be economic salvation in that task?
Editor’s Note: Portions of this column were published in Grimes’ newspaper, The Harris County Journal.