My sister just bought a new car. Well, it’s actually a 2008 Honda CR-V, so it’s new to her. And it got me thinking. Yeah, I know that’s dangerous, but stick with me here.
I grew up in an area that is dependent on the automobile business: Toledo is basically a suburb of Detroit in terms of supplying parts and related manufacturing, like glass and electronics. It was when I was growing up fifty years ago, and it still is. Chrysler has invested a lot of money in building and expanding a plant to turn out Jeeps, taking over from the old Jeep plant where Willys, then Kaiser, then AMC built vehicles going back to the early days of the 20th century. Now that Detroit is on the road to recovery, Toledo is too.
When I was growing up in the 1950′s, everybody drove an American car. That was because there weren’t a lot of what we called “foreign” cars then — Volkswagen, Renault, and the occasional Mercedes-Benz (distributed by the Studebaker dealer) were it, and this was long before Toyota and Datsun (now called Nissan) came onto the stage. Honda only made those cute little motorcycles that were a step up from a scooter.
But when my sister picked up her Honda, which replaced a Subaru that had finally died after 160,000 miles, I realized that besides me with my Ford Mustang and Pontiac, and my brother with his GMC pickup, everyone else in my family — my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and in-laws — drive cars that are built by companies that are based in another country. Yes, Hondas and BMW’s are assembled here in the U.S., but their corporate headquarters are overseas.
I guess we no longer think of things in terms of where they come from or who builds TV’s, or computers, or even furniture here in the U.S. as long as it’s good, reliable, and affordable. I’m not making any judgments here. It’s just interesting. Fifty years ago it was a novelty to have a Toyota or a Fiat, or a Sony TV or furniture from Sweden. Now we don’t even notice.
But this has changed the economy. We’re no longer a manufacturing nation, at least not on the scale that were were in the last century. We’re providing a lot of the talent, training, and the software for the companies that do the manufacturing, but the plants are in other places, and the only reason Hondas are assembled here is that it gets the product closer to the major market it sells to.
It also strikes me that it used to be that certain parts of the country were known for handling different parts of the economy: manufacturing; i.e. the steel (now rust) belt were in the Northeast and Midwest; the cotton belt with mills and textiles was in the South (close to the raw materials and cheap – mostly black – labor), and the agricultural areas were in the Midwest and plains. Now we’ve done that on a global scale; instead of regions of the country, we’ve replaced them with countries themselves like China and the Philippines where labor and materials are cheaper. Even agriculture; winter tomatoes (even here in South Florida) come from South America, where it’s summer… and the pickers get paid a tenth of the wages the migrant Mexicans get in Homestead.
I wonder if a hundred years ago people in New England complained about shipping jobs to North Carolina the way some complain about shipping jobs to China today. I am sure they did; all those mill towns in Massachusetts must have had something to say about that. But just like everything else, economies grow and evolve, and like a child turning into a teenager and then an adult, they — hopefully — learn to find their own way and move out of the house. And when they do, they’re driving off in a Honda or a Toyota. And — to carry the metaphor to its merciful conclusion — how the empty-nesters deal with that will tell us a lot about the next stage in our economic growth.