Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Where Is America's Sense of Self-Preservation?

I graduated high school in 1964. Back then, the parking lot at my high school was filled with good old American steel and good old American names - Ford, Chevy, Chrysler, Dodge. One friend had a Studebaker and another, an ugly old Nash. The wealthiest and luckiest guy in school, car-wise, had a Corvette.

I'm from Indiana. Back then, our car companies and our steel mills were booming. And so were all the vendors that supplied them. You could go to any factory in my county and have a good chance of getting hired on the spot for a job where you'd end up assembling brake hoses or clutch facings or wiring harnesses or.....

Okay, I know people my age tend to look back with rose-colored glasses but it seems to me those were rose-colored times for American workers, and by extension, the rest of the country as well.

Many years later, I had occasion to visit Youngstown, Ohio and what I mostly remember from that trip was the acres of closed and deteriorating steel mills. By that time, the plant where I once worked taping wiring harness had moved its facility to Mexico.

Another decade later and I was employed as an administrative assistant at a high-end real estate agency in Carmel, Indiana. Our salespeople were the elites of their field. Our clients were what today we would characterize as the one per cent, or at least, the five percent.

My (used) Mercury Marquis was one of the few American cars in that particular parking lot. Our successful brokers preferred prestige foreign jobs like Mercedes and BMWs and Porsches. I argued with them about that sometimes. My point was they were biting the hand that fed them by not supporting American workers and that would come back around to bite them - in the butt. Their comeback was that our particular clientele were immune to what happened with the blue collars. Couldn't I see, they asked earnestly, that fewer jobs means cheaper labor and cheaper labor is a positive thing for the economy? "Whose economy?" I asked.

Now, eleven years into a brand new century, we know the answer to that question, don't we?

America has pursued the policies my co-workers at the real estate office believed in to their extreme end. Our manufacturing base has been decimated. American stores are filled with goods and food produced outside the U.S.  All right, so occasionally, we suffer from their lax quality control. What's a little Salmonella among friends? The people who answer our calls to customer service are answering us from India, often in barely intelligible English, never mind that they call themselves Barbara or Bob.

Now, with our unemployment so high, we liberal types are begging the politicians to legislate a jobs bill that would include rebuilding America's infrastructure, thus killing two birds with one stone, providing Americans with wages while also making desperately needed repairs to our bridges and buildings. At least, by God, constructing things that are made of bricks and mortar would have to be done right here in the good old U.S.A.

But hold the phone, not so fast. We have now learned to our dismay that our assumptions are oh-so-wrong. California has embarked on a gigantic construction project - rebuilding the earthquake-weakened San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge at a cost of $7.2 billion. If you think, that would produce lots of jobs for lots of American workers, you'd be wrong because the bridge is being built in China. Yes, China.

According to the New York Times, Americans will pour the concrete road and assemble the bridge components but 3,000 workers at Shanhai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company (steelcutters, polishers, welders and engineers)are building the bridge itself. It is done in pieces which are then shipped the 6,500 miles to Oakland. Want to know how much the typical Chinese worker earns? $12 a day, often for working 7:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m., seven days a week, while living in a company dorm.

California declined to apply for federal funding to help with construction costs because they would have most likely come along with "Buy America" provisos and we wouldn't want that, would we? Instead, the state floated bonds and will charge tolls to recoup costs. (Thank you, Governor Schwarzenegger. Your wife was not the only one you screwed over.)

So let me get this straight. California estimates they will save $400 million by having the bridge built in China. In so doing, they decided not to apply for federal funds which would have defrayed some of the construction costs and also denied jobs to at least 3,000 Californians who would have paid taxes to the state (and incidentally, bought numerous products from California merchants with those dollars). When the bridge is complete, Californians will pay tolls to help recoup what California paid to China. Do we honestly think Californians came out ahead in this deal?

And if you believe this is a one-off, think again. According to David Barboza who wrote the article for the New York Times, in New York City alone, Chinese companies have won contracts to help renovate the New York subway system, refurbish the Alexander Hamilton Bridge over the Harlem River and build a new Metro-North train platform near Yankee Stadium.

All this from a country that tops the FDA's list for food rejection. China has sent us contact lens solution infested with parasites, toothpaste tainted with diethelene glucol (a chemical used in engine coolant), fish that claims to be monkfish but is, in reality, puffer fish (which harbor a lethal toxin), pet food containing melamine (a chemical used in fertilizer) and other foods contaminated with human excrement and rat feces, insect bodies and animal hair.

So, yes, this is exactly the nation I want producing the steel and assembling the parts and pieces for a bridge I have to cross. Good luck, Californians.

I have read so often that America is going to hell in a handbasket. The people who say so have various reasons for believing this is so. But if America is really going to hell in a handbasket, it is because we have lost our capacity for self-preservation.