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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

America the Consumer Colony

Recently, I viewed a documentary on the life and work of Mohandas Gandhi. I got one big feeling of deja vu from a remark made by one man who was reminiscing on how Great Britain exploited India while India was a part of the British Empire. The discussion was on how Great Britain stripped India of its natural resources and denied Indians the capacity to manufacture their own goods. The remark was made, "We didn't even have the capacity to manufacture a safety pin."

That remark caused me to reflect that in America, we export more and more of our manufacturing base to countries where labor is cheap. The American work force employed in manufacturing has fallen to 11 percent from 30 percent in the mid-1960's.

Foreign countries, in turn, sell us finished products: clothing, electronics, computers, cars and so forth causing our trade deficits with these countries to rise and our dependency on them to increase. Corporations are, in effect, treating us much the same way in economic matters that Indians were treated by the British prior to Gandhi's non-violent revolution. We have become a consumer colony and a corporation cash cow.

How long this can continue, is uncertain. We cannot keep up the practice of exporting high paying jobs manufacturing while creating a country made up of the few well paid professions and the many low paid service sector employees. As Louis Uchitelle points out in his essay "Factories Move Abroad, as Does U.S. Power" (NY Times, August 17, 2003) "Too many products are no longer manufactured here. . . and the skill to make them has disappeared. Resurrecting that skill is difficult. . . . Nor [is] it easily woo back American companies that have invested huge sums in large, modern facilities abroad."

We need to demand that our economic policy reflect the high cost of cheap imported goods.


unhyphenatedconservative said...

I highly agree with your desire to retain a strong industrial base in America. I think the problem is further compounded by the fact that while we hollow out oour own industrial base, we build the base of such wonderful folks as China.

However, given what appears to be your advocacy of centralized bureaucvratic rule making, don't you end up favoring policies that help hasten our job loss? I don;t advocate dismantling our regulation of things like child labor or worker safety laws but I do think such policies would be better achieved with localized, market based policies that would encourage companies to stay home.

Lynn Green said...

The problem with turning over all industrial policy to local control is that municipalities have to try to sell their soul (in the form of environmental, tax laws, and, yes, work place safety) in order to gain a proposed plant.

The reason we need to have a federal government is to level the playing field for all communities, so that the competitions they engage in actually benefit the communities. For example, local communities will compete on the basis of an educated local workforce and quality of life in the community.

The part of the answer as far as I can see is that we need to move from Free Trade to Fair Trade. Otherwise, we allow businesses to engage in a race to the bottom as far as wages, worker justice, and environmental regulations are concerned.

We cannot remain a great nation if we sacrifice our national industrial base on the altar of consumerism.

unhyphenatedconservative said...

I agree that there can be a problem of racing to the bottom. However, there is the benefit of local workers having a better idea of their needs.

I always think of this example when I hear about one size fits all regulations:

I had a friend in high school who was living on his own. He needed to work 35 hours to afford to live. However, labor laws required that he get benefits at that point, so his boss couldn;t do it.

My friend was willing to waive the benefits. They would have been nice but he needed cash. In the end, he had to quit the job and get one farther away from his home and school. Plus, he could not study at his new job.

Folks meant well with those labor laws. But everyone would have been better off if he could have just signed away those benies.

Lynn Green said...

The problem with your friend being willing to waive benefits for 36 hours of work each week how this would affect other workers who might not be in his same position.

For example, suppose someone else at the worksite needed those benefits like for example a single mother with two children in the home. She would cost less to employ than your friend, so who will the owner keep and who will he fire if there is one position to be filled.

Suppose also the owner comes around to the women and says, "I would sure like to keep you, but I can't pay your benefits. Would you mind "voluntarily" giving them up so you can keep the job." His approach to her might not even be this direct.

The bottom line is that a single person has little power against a corporation unless he/she has the benefit of a union with powers of collective bargaining or through workplace laws and regulations that insure that workers get a fair deal from their employers.