Friday, November 30, 2012

Foreign Aid

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.

3 barks and woofs on “Foreign Aid

  1. I did a chunk of growing up (yeah yeah I still have some left to do yadda yadda yadda) in some of those old factory towns in the Northeast you mention. The shift to the South was a lot more recent – and longer – than you might think: textile mills were still running there as recently as forty years ago, and places like Bass Shoe were still producing product locally well into the 70s.

    The feeling in the air was one of shock and helplessness, and the first real move away from company loyalty. Getting one job – and keeping it – was the rule not the exception: you got hired, and the company worked with you, promoted you where appropriate, covered your healthcare and retirement, and when you left after 40 years shook your hand and treated you like a human being. There was a real, strong turn against the corporations during that move: they suddenly weren’t loyal to their people, so why, then, should labor be loyal to them?

    There was a lot of helplessness in the mix too: the people taking those jobs in the Carolinas and points further South were Americans just like the folks laid off in New England. Workers were angry about the corporate move, but were more confused by the workers taking the jobs: didn’t they want better wages and benefits? The different approach to the work ethic in the South wasn’t well known even then, so most of the feeling up north was complete mystification as to why workers would be content with less than their northern fellows.

    It took shipping production – and jobs – overseas to make the northeast get really sour on the subject, in part because many businesses who moved their production south early on stated they did so to keep production in the country. The Northeast wasn’t happy, but it was patriotic enough two shut up and let fellow Americans take a few of their jobs. After those Southerners got screwed in their turn when those same jobs went to Mexico, Indonesia, etc etc, that sense that we had to grin and bear it disappeared.

  2. Being a former UAW president, I have a set of strict rules when it comes to buying american. I have a Chevy and a Dodge, both made by union workers. My former boss that I came down here to Texas with in ’02 now works the assembly line at Honda in West Liberty, Ohio. They are non-union, skirting just under UAW contract wages and benefits to keep the union out. Also, old James Rhodes, late governor of Ohio coaxed Honda to Ohio with tax incentive abatements, which I have disdain for. Once more rigging the tax system against the working people. Maybe I rattle on, but I buy American when I can, union if I can and no foreign brand items. I also like Diane Sawyer’s Made In America pieces.

  3. I like to think of myself as a union supporter and sympathizer in these dire times for the union movement all over the country. That being said, I confess I rarely look for the union label. Somehow I’ve gotten the feeling that what is is and this too shall evolve, perhaps into better days for families with union traditions going back three, four and more generations. Our family started out with Dodge, moved up to Pontiac, got hot with Ford’s Thunderbird and then the station wagons all four-kid families owned back in the day. We were among the first to buy Jeep’s Wagoneer when the blizzard of 1978 hit town. We drove the last one until it rusted so you could see the road going by. We two have had Buick station wagons while living in the snow belt in spite of their being so low-slung they sucked up snow and brought us to a standstill.

    Now that I’m a “senior citizen” I indulged myself with a Mustang GT convertible and have finally settled in to my Mini Cooper years. Himself drives a BMW that he says is his last car and although we won’t bury him in it it’s up in mileage as is he. Times change, needs change, and with American car manufacturers’ new awareness of how to meet the challenges of competition I’m hoping this country will evolve, that the UAW will too, so that instead of beating up the consumer or the evil bosses we can live with and thrive despite all this new scary reality.

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