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America must start producing more stuff

January 3, 2010
By LARRY RINGLER Tribune Chronicle

Below are some product recalls, as reported by the Associated Press on just one day, Dec. 17:

About 2,000 Hampton Bay dehumidifiers, made in China and imported by Home Depot, of Atlanta, because the product can possibly overheat and pose fire and burn hazards to consumers.

About 24,000 carbon dioxide bicycle tire inflators, manufactured in Taiwan and imported by Todson Inc. of North Attleboro, Mass., because the pressurized carbon dioxide cartridge can separate from the pump head, posing an injury risk.

About 18,300 fleece and flannel zip hooded sweat shirts with drawstrings, manufactured in Pakistan and distributed by Jason Evans Associates LLC of Hewlett, N.Y., because the drawstrings through the hood could cause children to be strangled or get trapped.

Toss in Toyota's recall of 4 million vehicles, and it starts to look like a trend.

But believe it or not, this isn't a cheap attempt to bash imported goods.

Actually, the point is you can't recall something if you don't make anything. America doesn't make enough stuff to even keep pace with foreign product recalls!

My wish for the new year - other than hitting the Mega Millions lottery - isn't for American companies to make crappy products but just to make things, period.

This is kind of a strange position for me. I've always drunk the ''free trader'' Kool-Aid. Global trade has been great for consumers, who, after all, are the ultimate boss. Foreign competition has given us running shoes, cars, big screen TVs and other stuff that not only was affordable but also broke new ground in style and technology. Foreign stuff has raised our living standards beyond our wildest dreams.

The problem is it's also raised our debt beyond our worst nightmares. Unless we show we can be responsible adults and rein in our manic buying, we're headed for a financial crackup worse than any drug addict has ever experienced. Worse, we're going to take our children and grandchildren with us.

The impact of global trade is easy to see by looking back at the area's industrial wreckage of the 2000s.

Steel-bar maker CSC Ltd. started the decade by sinking into its second bankruptcy. It eventually disappeared, partly due to its own labor and equipment issues but partly due to cheaper foreign bars.

Auto parts maker Delphi Packard Electric followed into Chapter 11 bankruptcy at mid-decade. This after the union had accepted a third tier of lower wages and benefits designed to help the company compete with low-cost foreign rivals.

You can always say American industry suffers because workers are paid so much more than Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and other foreign workers. But American workers take lower wages and benefits, and their employer still moves offshore or goes belly-up.

Many American workers have learned to adapt to manufacturing's steady decline. Some have used government money to earn college degrees in growing fields. Others have downsized to accommodate leaner paychecks.

The problem is the trend line. A line that bottoms and stays flat or begins to inch up is one thing. A line that continues to drop - and even accelerates - is a clear warning signal. The question then becomes how far down is down for American manufacturing - and can anything be done to stem the decline?

The latter question is a subject for future discussion.



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