America: Why the High Unemployment?

by John Brian Shannon

In 1970, of the 89,244 new cars and trucks sold in the U.S.A., 84.9% of them were built in North America, while only 15.1% of them were manufactured in other countries and shipped to this continent for purchase and registration.

In 2012, of the 14.4 million new cars and trucks sold in the U.S.A., 44.5% of them were built in North America, while imports accounted for 55.6% of registrations. Read here.

By any measure, this is an ongoing paradigm shift — which directly relates to American unemployment statistics since 1970.

A total of 15.4 million car and light truck sales are expected in the U.S. for calendar year 2013 — the best year since 2007. By 2014, U.S. sales are expected to reach 16 million, with imports continuing to increase their market share in the U.S.

Since the first Model T Ford rolled off the Dearborn, MI assembly line, millions of  workers have been employed by American automakers – including some workers who worked for the same company their entire career. Fathers who worked at Ford, GM or Chrysler from their childhood until retirement, found their sons and daughters good-paying jobs with their old employers. Unemployment in the 1945 – 1975 era was generally quite low — and that, in the midst of an economically damaging Cold War which negatively affected many parts of society including the unemployment rate, not incidentally.

Generally during the post-war boom, everybody worked, everybody earned a paycheque, and almost everybody contributed to the economy. About late 1973 or early 1974 this began to profoundly change in the United States and in the Western nations generally.

Not to blame the American auto manufacturers for the Arab Oil Embargo, as the Big Three had been assured of low petroleum prices by foreign governments and several domestic administrations — hence the big, V-8 powered cars of the era and their consequently-low MPG figures were popular with both manufacturers and consumers.

But American consumers are a fickle lot. Once the gas price shot upwards in the aftermath of the Arab Oil embargo, Datsun (now Nissan), Toyota and Honda nameplates began selling as fast as the ships could deliver them from Japan.

If only the foreign vehicles were of inferior quality! But they’re not. If only they used more fuel than their U.S. equivalents. But they don’t. The corporate fuel economy average for foreign and domestic makes still favours imported vehicles. Not by the wide margin it once did — and not that GM and Ford haven’t scored impressive MPG victories in some categories, because they have.

But, to put it bluntly, many employed Americans prefer their foreign-built cars. (“And those millions of now-chronically-unemployed Americans will just have to get by.”)

It’s not just cars and trucks either. Historically, most home electronics sold in the U.S.A. including televisions, smartphones and computers were also ‘Made in the U.S.A.’  — but not these days.

Most of the clothing, plastics and extruded metals purchased in the U.S. are now manufactured in Asian and Southeast Asian nations, where countries like Indonesia rely heavily on textile exports to us and other Western nations.

Much of the American conversation these days revolves around the old austerity vs. stimulus debate which reporters and op/ed journalists are required by their respective organizations to cover.

Meanwhile the 80-ton elephant in the room is the trillions of manufacturing dollars which have transferred from the West to Asia since 1970 — and the manufacturing jobs that have gone with them.

Communist Price — or Western Value?

by John Brian Shannon

Hey, stop, what’s that sound? Take a look around. Is everyone driving the cheapest car or carrying the cheapest handbags?

Hell no!

And why is that, exactly? Why isn’t everyone driving the latest Chery car — which is an extremely affordable car built in communist China? Or, why isn’t everyone buying the blue communist party uniforms made from a long-wearing material that will stand up to the elements for decades? Why are people all over the world buying expensive cars, handbags, jewellery and electronics, just for a few examples?

The reason is; There are effectively, only two kinds of markets in the world. Upmarket and downmarket and there are legitimate reasons for the existence of both markets.

On the one hand, you have upmarket goods and services, which have traditionally been the preserve of the rich Western nations along with an entire middle class in the West able to well-afford those upmarket goods and services. How convenient!

Could it have been planned this way? Why yes, it was. It has been the economic miracle of recorded history.

On the other hand, downmarket goods and services which have traditionally been manufactured and sold in the developing world — are priced according to local market conditions there. Very convenient for the developing world.

Since the industrial revolution, this is how the marketplace has worked. Upmarket goods were manufactured and sold in wealthy Western countries and downmarket goods were manufactured and sold in poorer countries.

Until now.

Suddenly, many upmarket goods are being manufactured in developing nations and a small but growing percentage are being purchased in developing nations.

The West used to own this part of the market, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the East is increasing it’s ownership of this formerly Western-only marketplace. At the same time, the downmarket goods and services haven’t gone anywhere and are still being manufactured by and sold in the developing nations.

Translating into ‘a loss for the West’ if you see things through the Western prism. If you see things through the Eastern prism, you might call it, ‘Advantage East’ or something like that. I call it something else, but more later.

Let me speak clearly on the situation the West now finds itself in; When you haven’t manufactured downmarket products in the first place, but then relatively suddenly, you lose fully half of your upmarket manufacturing to the developing world — that can only be called a paradigm shift in the marketplace.

Some Western politicians, corporations and junior economists have looked at this and in a panic, have announced that we must lower our costs — to match our competitors costs in the developing world! And, either by lack of action, or by actively supporting this line of thought, they have allowed this trend to continue in the Western nations and over time the problem has become much worse. Unwitting traitors, all.

Wages, benefits, unions, workers, unemployment, health care, retirement age, the housing market, traditional Western upmarket manufacturers — all these have felt the winds of change blowing in from the developing nations. It’s a race to the bottom.

“We must compete with China, we must match their labour rates, lower our social entitlements, we must lessen our national infrastructure spending — otherwise we will be beaten in the international marketplace by countries which already have those lower costs built right into their economy” — or so the thinking goes.

Which is wrong.

Rather than call this new paradigm, ‘Advantage East’ or ‘Loss to the West’ — I call it what it really is, ‘Opportunity Knocks‘ for that is what it is. The shift in the world economy is not a time to recoil in horror and then race to the bottom to try to match our competitors costs.

It is a time to do what we do best. It is a time to do what we do better than any other nation or bloc of nations. It is time to remember what has made us great since the beginning of the industrial revolution — and profoundly, do more of it.

If the great wisdom says that we must win, or at least compete in the great race to the bottom by lowering our labour and other costs and manufacture products of lesser quality, why aren’t we all driving Chery cars and buying no-name handbags?

Why are car companies like GM, Ford, Mercedes, BMW, Land Rover, Toyota, Lexus, Infiniti and the like, selling at near-record volumes and recording great profits? Why are Chanel, Louis Vuitton, lululemon and many others selling their wares at good volumes and profits?

Value vs. price.

In the race to the bottom, the only thing that matters is price. Price of labour, materials, production line, merchandising and profit. Price, price price, comrades!

If price was all that mattered, wouldn’t we all be driving cars built by China’s Chery Motors, or India’s Tata Motors? But, we’re not. And that is not to knock those cars — as I said above, there is a legitimate market for BMW’s, just as there is a legitimate market for economically-priced cars.

If price was all that mattered, we would all wear the blue communist party uniforms, which cost the equivalent of $2.00 U.S. dollars. But, we don’t. Many of us in the West think nothing of walking out of the mall with a $60.00 pair of jeans, or a $100.00 pair of dress shoes. Why? The ‘price-only mindset’ says it is illogical to spend money on clothes.

But we do, because we know the value, of, well, value. If you are fortunate enough to own a Toyota or a Mercedes, you know that you enjoy the ownership experience of a quality vehicle, that you will be well-protected in case of a crash, it will last a long time (assuming you do the proper maintenance) and you can in good conscience, gift it to one of your kids after they graduate and know that they will have a safe, reliable car to drive to college and it will still be in great condition many years later.

Why do many women buy a Louis Vuitton handbag? Why not a purchase based on price alone? Well, I can’t answer that question for you. But, I notice those bags continue to be very popular and it is the rare woman in this part of the world that doesn’t have at least one. It is completely illogical from the ‘price-only’ perspective.

Which is my entire point. The price of something is just the price. Anybody with any disposable income will always opt for a better-quality ownership experience and will pay more for a better quality product  and sometimes, much more!

Which proves it’s not about price. It’s about value for money. So, let’s stop trying to compete on price.

Our economists must convince government policymakers of that fact. We need to stop trying to out-compete the communist system and their communist-priced products. It is a battle we will lose every time, for they have already won that battle. The  downmarket was always theirs. It is a state-subsidized market. We can’t compete in that low-profit world, unless we merge our corporations with our government to create our own communist state. Not many takers on that idea, I’ll bet. Goodbye Louis Vuitton — goodbye Mercedes!

We need to compete on what we do best. And why not? The statists compete on what they do best.

Here in the West, we build quality. It costs a little more. Our products have something intangible, something that will convince people to pay more — and that intangible is called value. This is what we do best, so let us return to compete on what we do best. We not only build products — we build value.

Let’s not race to the bottom trying to beat state-subsidized companies. We can’t win there. Rather, let’s create products with value, not only for Western consumers — but for a huge, new and growing middle class with real disposable incomes — the (conceivably) five billion (non-Western) consumers in the developing world, many of whom are approaching middle class status in their respective countries.

And, lets keep the manufacturing of our value products here, to provide jobs to Western citizens — so that the West can continue to have a middle class too!

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John Brian Shannon writes about green energy, sustainable development and economics from British Columbia, Canada. His articles appear in the Arabian Gazette, EcoPoint Asia, EnergyBoom, the Huffington Post, the United Nations Development Programme – and other quality publications.

John believes it is important to assist all levels of government and the business community to find sustainable ways forward for industry and consumers.

Check out his personal blog at: http://johnbrianshannon.com
Check out his economics blog at:
https://jbsnews.wordpress.com
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