On China and American Moral Leadership: Essay for February 4, 2012

Traveling as do, I have literally circled the globe a couple of times each year over the last several decades. In fact, travel has taken me overseas for three of the last four weeks to Asia and Europe to conduct business; doing my part in growing the business of a large multi-national corporation. It is an experience that has produced a world view that is seasoned and uniquely mine.

The United States is an island nation. Our east coast abuts the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Heading westward, as our pioneer ancestors did, brings us to the vast Pacific. America has been blessed with abundant natural resources that, for most of our existence, made us self-sufficient and blissfully isolated in a world that long ago relied upon delicate interdependencies and alliances. We avoided colonial aspirations and fiercely resisted entering global conflicts in Europe and Asia until dragged in by grievous circumstance.

And when the dust settled after the Second World War we were still standing. The industrial might of the nations of Europe was destroyed and Japan laid waste by nuclear attack. The Arsenal of Democracy became the Factory of the World. The Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe and MacArthur oversaw the rise of a democratic Japan, each dominated by American industrial might.

Ironically, we created the monster that ate the American factory. Our efforts to restore stability and prosperity to a war torn world led to great infrastructure improvements. Germany and Japan built new factories and highways that were more efficient than the aging behemoths in the United States that just a few short years earlier produced the war material that defeated the Fascists and the Nazis. Taiwan and Korea built ships that Henry Kaiser, the father of the Liberty ship, would envy. Year by year, the newly industrialized world nibbled at the heels of American industrial dominance.

Slowly but steadily, American businesses grew weaker. Large industrial employers began to ship production elsewhere for better efficiencies and labor costs; first to the Sun Belt, then abroad. In 1960, 9 of the top 10 employers in the United States were industrial companies. Today, 7 of 10 are service providers. Here’s the rub: the job multiplier for industrial companies, such as automotive and steel, are much higher than for service industries such as retail or healthcare. For every 1000 jobs created in the steel industry, an additional 11,000 jobs are created elsewhere as a direct result. In retail, the same 1000 jobs create only an additional 240.

The bottom line effect is that losing 1000 steel workers has an impact that cannot be offset by creating 1000 jobs at Wal-Mart. Not by a long shot. America needs to retain, create and repatriate industrial jobs in order to preserve the post-war economy that ushered in the era of Pax Americana. And it needs to do so fast.

The erosion of domestic American business accelerated once Most Favored Nation status was conferred upon the People’s Republic of China in 1999. Since then, foreign direct investment has grown geometrically as a vast low cost labor market became available. Our balance of payments deficit has ballooned from $89 billion in 1999 to a level three times higher today.

And with all the wealth sprung from wildly successful businesses built in newly built cities in China, more than one third of the 1.3 billion Chinese live on two dollars a day. Human Rights and Workers Rights have not kept pace with the pace of change. Environmental respect long ago yielded to unbridled development. The cost of environmental stewardship is not passed along to producers.

These factors greatly enhance the competitiveness of Chinese businesses. They are not likely to change unless the world cries out for change. And we are held hostage by the addiction we have to low, lower, lowest cost manufacturing and the consumerism that drives consumption in America. We have failed to hold China accountable for their lack of responsible leadership in the face of the dynamic change their society is undergoing.

We can talk about leveling the playing field against unfair tariffs, product dumping and currency manipulation but until we begin to exert pressure on the Communist regime to act in a responsible way towards their society and our environment, the United States is a willing co-conspirator in our own industrial demise and the erosion of our moral leadership.

President Hu will shortly be visiting the United States. Who in our government will exhibit the courage to lead against this nascent economic giant? And in so leading, do we not gain a chance to reclaim a stronger economy in the process. The whole world should be watching.

Press on.

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