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.
Even when a dentist kills an adored lion, and everyone is furious, there’s loftier righteousness to be had.
Now is the point in the story of Cecil the lion—amid non-stop news coverage and passionate social-media advocacy—when people get tired of hearing about Cecil the lion. Even if they hesitate to say it.
But Cecil fatigue is only going to get worse. On Friday morning, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Oppah Muchinguri, called for the extradition of the man who killed him, the Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. Muchinguri would like Palmer to be “held accountable for his illegal action”—paying a reported $50,000 to kill Cecil with an arrow after luring him away from protected land. And she’s far from alone in demanding accountability. This week, the Internet has served as a bastion of judgment and vigilante justice—just like usual, except that this was a perfect storm directed at a single person. It might be called an outrage singularity.
Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush look abroad for inspiration, heralding the end of American exceptionalism.
This election cycle, two candidates have dared to touch a third rail in American politics.
Not Social Security reform. Not Medicare. Not ethanol subsidies. The shibboleth that politicians are suddenly willing to discuss is the idea that America might have something to learn from other countries.
The most notable example is Bernie Sanders, who renewed his praise for Western Europe in a recent interview with Ezra Klein. “Where is the UK? Where is France? Germany is the economic powerhouse in Europe,” Sanders said. “They provide health care to all of their people, they provide free college education to their kids.”
On ABC’s This Week in May, George Stephanopoulos asked Sanders about this sort of rhetoric. “I can hear the Republican attack ad right now: ‘He wants American to look more like Scandinavia,’” the host said. Sanders didn’t flinch:
Forget credit hours—in a quest to cut costs, universities are simply asking students to prove their mastery of a subject.
MANCHESTER, Mich.—Had Daniella Kippnick followed in the footsteps of the hundreds of millions of students who have earned university degrees in the past millennium, she might be slumping in a lecture hall somewhere while a professor droned. But Kippnick has no course lectures. She has no courses to attend at all. No classroom, no college quad, no grades. Her university has no deadlines or tenure-track professors.
Instead, Kippnick makes her way through different subject matters on the way to a bachelor’s in accounting. When she feels she’s mastered a certain subject, she takes a test at home, where a proctor watches her from afar by monitoring her computer and watching her over a video feed. If she proves she’s competent—by getting the equivalent of a B—she passes and moves on to the next subject.
A hawkish senator doesn't apply the lessons of Iraq
Earlier this week, Senator Lindsey Graham, a hawkish Republican from South Carolina, used a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to stage a theatrical display of his disdain for the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
The most telling part of his time in the spotlight came when he pressed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to declare who would win if the United States and Iran fought a war:
Here’s a transcript of the relevant part:
Graham: Could we win a war with Iran? Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins?
Carter: No. The United States.
Graham: We. Win.
Little more than a decade ago, when Senator Graham urged the invasion of Iraq, he may well have asked a general, “Could we win a war against Saddam Hussein? Who wins?” The answer would’ve been the same: “The United States.” And the U.S. did rout Hussein’s army. It drove the dictator into a hole, and he was executed by the government that the United States installed. And yet, the fact that the Iraqi government of 2002 lost the Iraq War didn’t turn out to mean that the U.S. won it. It incurred trillions in costs; thousands of dead Americans; thousands more with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder and years of deployments away from spouses and children; and in the end, a broken Iraq with large swaths of its territory controlled by ISIS, a force the Iraqis cannot seem to defeat. That’s what happened last time a Lindsey Graham-backed war was waged.
Most of the big names in futurism are men. What does that mean for the direction we’re all headed?
In the future, everyone’s going to have a robot assistant. That’s the story, at least. And as part of that long-running narrative, Facebook just launched its virtual assistant. They’re calling it Moneypenny—the secretary from the James Bond Films. Which means the symbol of our march forward, once again, ends up being a nod back. In this case, Moneypenny is a send-up to an age when Bond’s womanizing was a symbol of manliness and many women were, no matter what they wanted to be doing, secretaries.
Why can’t people imagine a future without falling into the sexist past? Why does the road ahead keep leading us back to a place that looks like the Tomorrowland of the 1950s? Well, when it comes to Moneypenny, here’s a relevant datapoint: More than two thirds of Facebook employees are men. That’s a ratio reflected among another key group: futurists.
An alpenhorn performance in Switzerland, a portrait of Vladimir Putin made of spent ammunition from Ukraine, Prince Charles surprised by an eagle, wildfire in California, a sunset in Crimea, and much more.
An alpenhorn performance in Switzerland, a portrait of Vladimir Putin made of spent ammunition from Ukraine, fireworks in North Korea, Prince Charles surprised by an eagle, wildfire in California, protests in the Philippines and Turkey, a sunset in Crimea, and much more.
Netflix’s revival of the ensemble cult film does far more than play on nostalgia—it’s an absurd, densely plotted prequel that never forgets to be funny.
At some point, given time, word of mouth, and endless rewatching, a cult classic evolves into a universally beloved media property. Netflix, it seems, has become the arbiter of that transformation—first and most notably by reviving the adored-but-prematurely-canceled Arrested Development for a fourth season. Now the service is continuing this effort by turning the 2001 comedy Wet Hot American Summer, a critical and commercial bomb on its release, into an eight-episode prequel miniseries. Though it all but vanished without a trace on release, Wet Hot’s shaggy, surreal charm and its cast of future stars have helped it endure over the years, and despite its bizarre positioning, the Netflix edition hasn’t missed a beat, even 14 years later.
The Vermont senator’s revolutionary zeal has met its moment.
There’s no way this man could be president, right? Just look at him: rumpled and scowling, bald pate topped by an entropic nimbus of white hair. Just listen to him: ranting, in his gravelly Brooklyn accent, about socialism. Socialism!
And yet here we are: In the biggest surprise of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, this thoroughly implausible man, Bernie Sanders, is a sensation.
He is drawing enormous crowds—11,000 in Phoenix, 8,000 in Dallas, 2,500 in Council Bluffs, Iowa—the largest turnout of any candidate from any party in the first-to-vote primary state. He has raised $15 million in mostly small donations, to Hillary Clinton’s $45 million—and unlike her, he did it without holding a single fundraiser. Shocking the political establishment, it is Sanders—not Martin O’Malley, the fresh-faced former two-term governor of Maryland; not Joe Biden, the sitting vice president—to whom discontented Democratic voters looking for an alternative to Clinton have turned.
Who can devise the most convoluted way to wipe out the Islamic State?
Everyone with a stake in Middle Eastern geopolitics publicly declares that ISIS must be defeated. Yet opinions range widely on how this should be achieved.
Saudi Arabia, for example, believes ISIS cannot be defeated unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. Turkey has just convinced NATO nations that the war against ISIS can only be won if Turkey’s traditional Kurdish opponents are neutralized first. Israel sees only one way to defeat ISIS: destroy Iran’s nuclear program and clip its wings regionally.
So what explains these apparently contradictory aims? The cynical view would be that all these parties are less interested in defeating ISIS than in achieving their own regional goals, and that they’re only pretending to be concerned about wiping out the group. Clearly, however, there is no place for cynicism in Middle Eastern politics. Everyone involved in the region is known to be sincere, albeit in radically different ways.
The Wall Street Journal’s eyebrow-raising story of how the presidential candidate and her husband accepted cash from UBS without any regard for the appearance of impropriety that it created.
The Swiss bank UBS is one of the biggest, most powerful financial institutions in the world. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton intervened to help it out with the IRS. And after that, the Swiss bank paid Bill Clinton $1.5 million for speaking gigs. TheWall Street Journal reported all that and more Thursday in an article that highlights huge conflicts of interest that the Clintons have created in the recent past.
The piece begins by detailing how Clinton helped the global bank.
“A few weeks after Hillary Clinton was sworn in as secretary of state in early 2009, she was summoned to Geneva by her Swiss counterpart to discuss an urgent matter. The Internal Revenue Service was suing UBS AG to get the identities of Americans with secret accounts,” the newspaper reports. “If the case proceeded, Switzerland’s largest bank would face an impossible choice: Violate Swiss secrecy laws by handing over the names, or refuse and face criminal charges in U.S. federal court. Within months, Mrs. Clinton announced a tentative legal settlement—an unusual intervention by the top U.S. diplomat. UBS ultimately turned over information on 4,450 accounts, a fraction of the 52,000 sought by the IRS.”