How many times over the last twenty years have you heard someone complain that Americans can’t make anything anymore? The idea of “post-industrial America” is so strong that if you search for the phrase with Google, you will get 645,000 hits!
There was a time when the idea of “post-industrial America” would have been incomprehensible. Throughout the world, goods stamped “Made in USA” carried a reputation for quality (although at a price). I am pleased to report that when I talk to my customers in other parts of the world, a little bit of this assumption of American manufacturing quality persists. Reputations change, of course. I’m old enough to remember when “Made in Japan” was the common retort when something broke.
Some of those who talk about “post-industrial America” do so out of contempt for the work ethic of the American worker. Others are concerned about how Chinese goods have flooded America — and with good reason. Wal-Mart’s “tough as nails” approach to marketing Chinese goods has played a crucial role in turning some U.S. manufacturers into marketing arms for Chinese-made goods. The other reason to be concerned is that money flowing to China is building up China’s military might.
Some of the “post-industrial America” whining is from labor unions. They seem reluctant to admit that their wage demands destroyed U.S. manufacturing jobs — the one area of the economy that unions have historically done well at organizing. Competition from Asia was going to become a problem anyway. Wage rates in Asia are extremely low, and there are workers who are effectively slaves making many of the consumer goods that Americans buy. But the unions speeded up the inevitable.
Environmental laws drove some of America’s deindustrialization. I’ve seen video of an Asian computer “recycling” operation that doesn’t require you to be green to be horrified. To get the valuable raw materials out of these computers and monitors, they are using hammers and flames, releasing worrisome amounts of lead into the ground.
And yet, I have some good news for you. We still manufacture in America. Some of the goods we still make won’t surprise you: airplanes, for example. Heck, we invented the airplane. America is still a major manufacturer of firearms, since we are one of a handful of countries that has relatively few restrictions on ordinary people owning guns.
You won’t be surprised that some very heavy, relatively inexpensive items are still made here. The cost of transporting a washing machine, or a rolling warehouse ladder, halfway around the world is substantial. The home team (no matter where you are) has a clear advantage on this.
What surprises me is the goods that we still make that you might not expect. Some of it is highly precise, carefully handcrafted goods — products that you might expect could only be made in Asia. For example, Astro-Physics in Machesney Park, Illinois, is one of the world’s top makers of very high-end astronomical telescopes. If you want one, you’ll need a pile of money and patience, because the waiting list for their products is usually several years long. Televue, in Chester, New York, isn’t in quite the same league as Astro-Physics (mere mortals can afford one), but like Astro-Physics, they enjoy an international reputation for the fine quality and technical innovation of their telescopes — and you’ll find customers buying Televue’s telescopes throughout the world.
I have a little sideline business, building telescope accessories. With the exception of one German-made component used in one model line, and some of the screws, the products that I machine and sell are entirely made in the U.S. I did not originally expect to sell these products outside the United States — well, maybe a few in Canada. But it has been a source of considerable surprise and pride that perhaps 25% of my orders come from outside the U.S.: New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Britain, Spain, Hungary, and Italy (so far).
America still makes some astonishingly low-tech products. I get some quite astonishing wind during rainstorms, and water starts to flow under the garage doors. I found some rubber garage door thresholds in the Harbor Freight Tools catalog that were inexpensive and seemed like they would prevent this. I assumed, because Harbor Freight Tools is overwhelmingly a seller of Chinese-made goods, that these were Chinese as well. What a shocker! When I opened the box: “Made in USA.” What is the world coming to when Harbor Freight Tools sells reasonably priced American-made goods?
Even more startling: I went into Target recently to buy socks. As you might expect, many of the socks were made in China and some in other Asian countries. But several of the packages indicated “Made in USA.” And they were $7.99, compared to $5.99 for the Chinese made socks. So far, they are turning out to be more durable than the imported socks. A reader of my blog told a similarly shocking tale of going to Wal-Mart, where the house brand Ozark Trail sleeping bag was made in the USA and was $4 cheaper than the Chinese-made Coleman brand. The Ozark Trail bag was obviously better made.
Post-industrial America? Not hardly.