The Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Posted on May 7, 2013


This was of course Mark Twain’s famous quip upon hearing of his obituary in The New York Journal. It might serve well to describe the American manufacturing sector, long the driving force of the U. S. economy, and until very recently, thought to have died or shrunk into a relic of its old self.

It had been a great run, but now I was living in the period of decline and decadence. It has happened to all empires in history.

The evidence was clear.

Globalization, outsourcing, huge wage differences between us and China and India—not to speak of Bangladesh and Honduras—had all undermined our ability to compete. Companies were running “offshore” to the detriment of manufacturing, one of the sinews of our once dominant empire, an empire of achievement and productivity rather than one of the old fashioned ones of land and sovereignty.

I had even ordered an abridged version of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons to make gloomy comparisons. The original written in the eighteenth century took three long volumes.

I’ll probably end up getting the Cliff Notes on a blog somewhere since I think even the edited version I ordered takes over 1000 pages. But the decline of Rome took several hundred years and it was complicated.

I had written off American manufacturing and accepted the decline of the American industrial empire created in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that is, until I read an article in a recent of issue of Time magazine.

What is happening here? Are we in decline or have we hit the bottom and are on the way back up?

Being an historian, I of course looked back into our past for just how far we had come to be able to judge how far we have fallen.

The news in the long run—if thirty or forty years can be considered “long” in the history of man that runs for several million years if you count when men climbed down from trees, or about six thousand years or so if you are more inclined to put God into the equation—has not been good.

Manufacturing has been “outsourced” and “gone offshore” to increase profits and efficiency. Basically, for American capital and manufacturing to stay competitive in a “global” economy, they had to go somewhere else. That has been the mantra, at least, for the last twenty or thirty years.

Detroit, long the center of automobile manufacturing in America, is now the subject of documentaries which roam over the city with unsparing candor, showing but a hulk of what once was a thriving metropolis. Empty buildings, grass in the gutters, the scenes look like bombed out cities of Germany at the end of World War II.

A country that was on the make as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth a mere one hundred or more years ago, is now sliding down as fast as it rose.

And the rise to prominence and world power was spectacular, let there be no doubt of that.

At the end of World War II, much of Europe and Asia lay shattered by war, and the U.S.—untouched at home—rose to dominate the world in the second half of the twentieth century.

Before then, astute observers, even in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, knew the potential war making power of this country. The Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto who led the attack on Pearl Harbor knew his enemy well, having served as a naval attaché twice in the U. S. and studied at Harvard after the First World War. He knew the latent military power of the U. S., and is purported to have said when Pearl Harbor was attacked, “we have wakened a sleeping giant.”

The Cold War marked international politics in the second half of the twentieth century, and while the U.S. eventually triumphed over its greatest adversary, the Soviet Union, something happened to the apparently unending rise of the American empire, of prosperity and wealth generation and a style of life some would say unequaled in world history.

We, like the Roman Empire of old, became soft and started to degenerate from internal rot and decadence. The evidence is all around us: a generation or two or three addicted to entitlements, a dwindling work ethic, a collapse in morality, a politically correct philosophy that champions the lowest common denominator, rampant cheating in schools, and the list goes on.

Could we have gone up so swiftly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and have had an even swifter collapse in the twenty-first?

I had grown a bit despondent, but then this spring taught an online course at UA on the history of the early Christian church and found myself drawn into the discussions I set up for the kids. I was totally lifted up by the depth and thoughtfulness of their answers to the discussion questions I asked them just to get the juices going.

“What’s going on here?” I thought. These young people are showing me a love of truth and morality, a deep and abiding faith (even though this was a history course one cannot deal with the history of Christianity and avoid such usual taboo subjects as Jesus and belief), and in almost all regards left a deep and positive impression on me.

As I pondered on this turn of events, an issue of Time appeared in April, and the lead article focused on the return of manufacturing to the U. S. The dynamics of globalized economies were giving U. S. manufacturers a huge boost in re-establishing the credibility and integrity of the old label “Made in the U.S.A.” that used to be a guarantee of quality and worth, at an affordable price.

As they observed, “step back and you’ll see a bright spot, perhaps the best economic news the U. S. has witnessed since the rise of Silicon Valley: made in the USA is making a comeback.”

That’s quite a claim, and some of it no doubt due to some journalistic hyperbole but the statistics are convincing: “the U. S. has seen its manufacturing growth outpace that of other advanced nations…marks the first time in more than a decade that the number of factory jobs has gone up instead of down…American workers are busy making things that customers around the world want to buy…and defying the narrative of the nation’s supposedly inevitable manufacturing decline.”

My family and friends will tell you that I am the proverbial optimist, with a touch of sarcasm, and a twist of cynicism, to balance off the view that the glass is always half full, never half empty. This ship of state is not the Titanic slowly slipping into the icy waters of the North Atlantic on the way to the bottom of the sea.

Nor are we one of the cruise ships so popular these days, largely devoted, as near as I can tell, to eating and various forms of frivolity and good hearted self-indulgence, a society with plenty of money and time to forget momentarily the violence and poverty of America for a few days of fun at sea.

I can’t encompass everything about this country put together by politicians, pundits, observers, statisticians, pollsters and general beard pullers of Left and Right. Sorry ladies, I don’t know how to degenderize beard pullers, a colorful phrase that invokes wise old sages giving us the benefit of their wisdom.

Anecdotally, I see young people devoted to Christian morality, not just going to church, but going on mission trips to Honduras and Mozambique, giving back to people from the largess that God has given them. I read about manufacturers slowly rebuilding, with disciplined, devoted hardworking employees. I see immigrants putting their shoulder to save and build, for themselves and their families, and so they slowly transform the living and work spaces around them with their work ethic
I saw a people come together after the tornado that devastated our community on April 27, 2011, and we became a true community, not just individual survivors, but people who cared about each other.

That’s the glass half full, and maybe even getting a little fuller. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, perhaps our national obituary is a little premature. The general wisdom, born out by history, is that all empires and great nations eventually decline and fall, and so why should we be the exception?

But the genius of this country, born as an experiment in freedom and democracy, is to keep pushing the boundaries beyond the known. That’s what continues to make this such an exciting place to work and live and what still draws people from all over the world to share in the great experiment.

This article published an as OpEd in The Tuscaloosa News, U. S. Manufacturing Obituary is Premature, May 19, 2013

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