The current issue of our magazine (a subscription makes a perfect gift!™) has a two-part cover-story package. One is Charles Fishman's "The Insourcing Boom," which concentrates on GE and argues that U.S.-based manufacturing companies are finding it more attractive to do more of their work within our borders. The other is my "Mr. China Comes to America," which says that increasing costs and friction of doing business in China, and shifts in technology that allow very rapid-cycle production close to the market inside the United States, will encourage new companies to do more of their manufacturing work here rather than outsourcing it to China.
Alan Tonelson, of the US Business & Industry Council, is a long-time friend with whom I have often agreed on questions of U.S.-Japanese trade frictions. He completely disagrees with the premise of these two articles. In the spirit of free-and-full discussion, I turn the floor over to him. I have a brief response at the end.
The Insourcing Boom that Isn't
By Alan Tonelson [right]
According to the two feature articles in December's Atlantic, manufacturing in the United States is making an historic comeback. In particular, changes in wages, energy costs, and technology around the world mean that China and other Asian locations no longer hold all the cards as manufacturing locations. Even better, large and small American businesses increasingly are recognizing that producing - and innovating - back in the United States has become their most lucrative option.
Moreover, both "The Insourcing Boom," by Charles Fishman and "Mr. China Comes to America" by James Fallows state that much more is involved than domestic manufacturing's cyclical rebound from an historically painful recession. As the former contends, the manufacturing revival "cannot be explained merely by the ebbing of the Great Recession, and with it the cyclical return of recently laid-off workers." In the latter's words, domestic industry's outlook is better today "than at any other time since Rust Belt desolation and the hollowing-out of the American working class came to seem the grim inevitabilities of the globalized industrial age."
Both authors provide numerous and seemingly impressive examples of insourcing and corporate start-ups that support these claims. They also present statistics on energy prices, U.S. and Chinese wages, and the post-2010 rise in American manufacturing employment. But neither gives their readers the most important information they need to know about domestic industry's current circumstances and future prospects - that virtually no national- or global-level data show that American manufacturing is even continuing its recovery from recession, much less stealing the march on Chinese and other foreign rivals. Indeed, nearly all of the most comprehensive statistics portray U.S. industry as still slipping further down the international ranks.
For example, during an historically sluggish American recovery, a U.S. manufacturing sector in renaissance mode should be growing faster than the rest of the economy. That was true in 2010 and 2011. But the out-performance is already over. This year, the entire U.S. economy has expanded by only 2.06 percent after inflation. Manufacturing output, however, has actually fallen - by 0.54 percent.
A manufacturing sector engineering a big secular rebound should be gaining share in its own home market - the world's largest single national market, and the one its companies should know best. Yet new government data analyzed by the U.S. Business and Industry Council show that more than 100 advanced domestic manufacturing industries collectively lost American customers to imports worldwide last year.
In 2011, foreign-based producers supplied a record total of 37.57 percent of total American purchases in industries ranging from semiconductors to pharmaceuticals to ball bearings to machine tools and dozens of other capital-and technology-intensive sectors. In 2010, when the industrial renaissance supposedly was stirring, the import penetration rate was 37.07 percent and in 1997 - the earliest data year - only 24.49 percent. In fact, imports accounted for half or more of everything Americans bought in nearly a third of these industries, including construction equipment, metal-cutting machine tools, laboratory equipment, turbines and turbine generator sets, and of course autos and heavy-duty trucks alike.
Companies losing market share rightly are almost never described as winners or viewed as promising. Do industries losing market share deserve better reviews?
Nor is the growth of exports compensating for these losses. Since plummeting during the Great Recession as American economic demand nosedived across the board, America's manufacturing trade deficit has rebounded much faster than the economy as a whole, and indeed hit a monthly record earlier this year. This shortfall's strong comeback is an especially important and bearish indicator of U.S. industry's global competitiveness, since mainstream economic theory teaches that trade flows are the means by which market forces create the optimal global division of labor. In other words, the countries that trade a given product most successfully are those that eventually will produce it most successfully, and vice versa.
The China story told by these data also clash with that told in the December Atlantic articles. As fast as imports worldwide have been grabbing share of U.S. advanced manufactures' markets, the inroads being made by imports from China have been much faster. And although these shipments started from a considerably lower base, they supplied more than six percent of all American purchases of these capital- and technology-intensive products last year.
As robustly as the overall U.S. manufacturing trade deficit has risen recently, the China deficit has recovered just as dramatically, and from a much shallower trough. In fact, so far this year, the manufacturing trade gap with China has increased more four times faster than America's global trade gap.
Signs of American industry's weakness also emerge from comparing its growth rate with those of leading competitor countries. Last week, the U.S. Labor Department reported that between 2009 and 2011, American manufacturing output expanded more slowly than industry in Germany, Sweden, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, and only slightly faster than manufacturing in Japan, whose industry is widely described as hemorrhaging competitiveness. These years of course cover the period when the U.S. manufacturing renaissance allegedly was well underway.
Data for China were not provided in this survey of high-income countries. Yet the consulting firm IHS reported this earlier year that in 2010 and 2011, America's share of world industrial output not only has fallen behind not only China's, but has been falling faster than that of the 27-nation European Union, whose economic problems are by now all too well known.
Other major problems with the articles revolve around insourcing claims themselves. Do the new investments in U.S. manufacturing mean that outsourcing has stopped or has slowed significantly? None of this essential context is presented. But last July, a major Bloomberg News investigation spotlighted a study reporting that continuing outsourcing neglected by the news media has entirely offset the job creation credited to insourcing.
In addition, improved American competitiveness is far from the only reason for insourcing. Scratch an instance of reshored manufacturing, and significant federal, state, and local government subsidies can often be found beneath the surface. For example, according to GE official Kim Freeman, the $800 million Louisville appliance investment detailed in "The Insourcing Boom" was keyed by $100 million in such supports. Over the last year, two New York Times articles have made clear that subsidies have been "increasingly important" spurs to new and retained domestic manufacturing investments.
Using taxpayer dollars to pay manufacturing companies to move or stay may make perfect sense in many cases. And certainly most of America's major trade competitors engage in such practices pervasively. But relying substantially on government inducements is likely a losing proposition for domestic manufacturing advocates. After all, industrial rivals like China, Germany, and Japan are financially strong. The United States remains saddled with enormous debts - many owed to these very countries, and is unlikely to win a worldwide subsidy competition.
American manufacturing still retains many strengths. Some of it, moreover, may boast considerable growth potential. But no one should underestimate the continuing weaknesses and challenges made clear by the most comprehensive, most detailed data. Without presenting this readily available big-picture evidence, accurately describing domestic manufacturing's present circumstances and realistically assessing its prospects simply is not possible.
Alan Tonelson is a Research Fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, which represents nearly 2,000 small and medium-sized domestic U.S. manufacturers. The author of The Race to the Bottom (Westview Press, 2002), Tonelson contributes to the Council's AmericanEconomicAlert.org website, and can be followed on Twitter @AlanTonelson and on Facebook at Tonelsonontheeconomy.
I will leave to Charles Fishman any response to the specifics in his article. For my part I will say that I don't think Alan Tonelson engages the main point I was making.
As my article said, we have been through a relentless decades-long period in which every observable trend seemed to be, and was, working against the feasibility of manufacturing within the United States. Alan Tonelson and his USBIC have been in the vanguard in chronicling those pressures. But, I explained, people close to the factory-floor realities in both the United States and China told me that changes beginning to be visible now seemed likely to alter those pressures. I wrote the story because people whose track record and judgment about technological trends I have learned to trust, over the years, told me these changes were worth noticing. Since they were talking about shifts that are just getting underway, the early trends they were talking about would not be captured in past manufacturing statistics, even those from 2011.
If the pattern of decline that Alan Tonelson lays out still prevails in 2015 or 2018, then the people I quoted will prove to have been wrong. If the pattern changes, their explanations will be part of the reason why. Thanks to Alan Tonelson for laying out his case.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night.
For years before Hurricane Katrina, storm experts warned that a big hurricane would inundate the Big Easy. Reporters noted that the levees were unstable and could fail. Yet hardly anyone paid attention to these Cassandras until after the levees had broken, the Gulf Coast had been blown to pieces, and New Orleans sat beneath feet of water.
The wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reveals the sway that a deadly act of God or man can hold on people, even 10 years later. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about how effectively the nation is prepared for the next catastrophe, whether that be a hurricane or something else. There are plenty of people warning about the dangers that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean that the average citizen or most levels of the government are anywhere near ready for them.
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
Climate change means the end of our world, but the beginning of another—one with a new set of species and ecosystems.
A few years ago in a lab in Panama, Klaus Winter tried to conjure the future. A plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he planted seedlings of 10 tropical tree species in small, geodesic greenhouses. Some he allowed to grow in the kind of environment they were used to out in the forest, around 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Others, he subjected to uncomfortably high temperatures. Still others, unbearably high temperatures—up to a daily average temperature of 95 degrees and a peak of 102 degrees. That’s about as hot as Earth has ever been.
It’s also the kind of environment tropical trees have a good chance of living in by the end of this century, thanks to climate change. Winter wanted to see how they would do.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The tension between religious liberty and same-sex marriage may eventually come to a head in the courts, but probably not through the Kentucky clerk’s case.
As Rowan County clerk Kim Davis crawls further and further out on a limb, Supreme Court experts agree that she has little chance of prevailing. District Judge David Bunning, on August 12 ordered Davis, in her capacity as county clerk, to issue marriage licenses to all couples who meet the statutory criteria for marriage in Kentucky—a definition that, since the Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, includes same-sex couples.
Davis has refused, citing “the authority of God.” The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied her emergency request for a stay. This throws the case back to the Sixth Circuit, which will hear the appeal of Judge Bunning’s order. Assuming she loses in the Sixth Circuit—a fairly good assumption—she would then have the alternative of petitioning the Supreme Court to hear her religious freedom claim. The Court will eventually hear a case about religious freedom and same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it will be this one.
The past is beautiful until you’re reminded it’s ugly.
Taylor Swift’s music video for “Wildest Dreams” isn’t about the world as it exists; it’s about the world as seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment. In the song, Swift sings that she wants to live on in an ex’s memory as an idealized image of glamour—“standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset.” In the video, her character, an actress, falls in love with her already-coupled costar, for whom she’ll live on as an idealized image of glamour—standing in a nice dress, staring at a giant fan that’s making the fabric swirl in the wind.
The setting for the most part is Africa, but, again, the video isn’t about Africa as it exists, but as it’s seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment—a very particular nostalgia and kind of entertainment. Though set in 1950, the video is in the literary and cinematic tradition of white savannah romances, the most important recent incarnation of which might be the 1985 Meryl Streep film Out of Africa, whose story begins in 1913. Its familiarity is part of its appeal, and also part of why it’s now drawing flack for being insensitive. As James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Viviane Rutabingwa write at NPR:
How the Islamic State uses economic persecution as a recruitment tactic
Before Islamic State militants overran her hometown of Mosul in June 2014, Fahima Omar ran a hairdressing salon. But ISIS gunmen made Omar close her business—and lose her only source of income. Salons like hers encouraged “debauchery,” the militants said.
Omar is one of many business owners—male and female—who say ISIS has forced them to shut up shop and lose their livelihoods in the process. The extremist group has also prevented those who refuse to join it from finding jobs, and has imposed heavy taxes on civilians.
“ISIS controls every detail of the economy,” says Abu Mujahed, who fled with his family from ISIS-controlled Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. “Only their people or those who swear allegiance to them have a good life.” When they took over Deir al-Zor, ISIS gunmen systematically took control of the local economy, looting factories and confiscating properties, says Mujahed. Then they moved in, taking over local business networks.
Though it wasn’t pretty, Minaj was really teaching a lesson in civility.
Nicki Minaj didn’t, in the end, say much to Miley Cyrus at all. If you only read the comments that lit up the Internet at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, you might think she was kidding, or got cut off, when she “called out” the former Disney star who was hosting: “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”
To summarize: When Minaj’s “Anaconda” won the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, she took to the stage in a slow shuffle, shook her booty with presenter Rebel Wilson, and then gave an acceptance speech in which she switched vocal personas as amusingly as she does in her best raps—street-preacher-like when telling women “don’t you be out here depending on these little snotty-nosed boys”; sweetness and light when thanking her fans and pastor. Then a wave of nausea seemed to come over her, and she turned her gaze toward Cyrus. To me, the look on her face, not the words that she said, was the news of the night: