I spent my entire career in industry producing magical digital widgets for companies and consumers alike, and I’m the one everyone calls when they have problems with their PCs. You could say I live and breath this digital stuff.
I’m also a keen observer of how our economy has slid downhill for the last thirty or forty years. Although I’ve been fortunate to not be personally effected by the economic downturn (at least to the degree it has impacted most people), I have children and grandchildren who must live in an ever-worsening economic climate.
I’ve researched and analyzed the issues from the perspective of education, manufacturing, politics, and culture, and I have seen the writing on the wall, Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin, "Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting."
In what way have we been found wanting? I think, at the very core, it’s “greed.”
We’re always nostalgic about the past. In many ways it was not as good as it is now. No-one wants a repeat of the great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, but few can afford health insurance to provide the modern, high-tech, and expensive alternatives. Everyone wants to return to a slow paced, horse and buggy time, but no-one will give up the fresh fruits and vegetables sped to us over modern transportation systems.
We all love our big screen TVs and driving to the mall, yet we wonder how we can have an epidemic of obesity. We are shocked by the poor performance of our public schools, but parents turn over child raising to video games and 300 channels of cable television. We agree to frisked at the airport and give up our bottles of shampoo, and we stop handing out bible verses on airlines because people complained. We are still the riches country in the world, yet hand written, cardboard signs appear on our streets asking for “any help we can give.”
What was the magic that we had in the past? Where has American exceptionalism gone? Or, what has it gotten us?
Following the end of World War Two, when the U.S. was basking in the, well deserved, world-wide proclaim for our system, we were the primary surviving industrial and manufacturing system. Couple that fact with our willingness to lend a hand rebuilding our allies and enemies alike — and thereby creating customers for our factories. Add our system of justice and freedom, the greatest in the world. Fold in a steady flow of immigrants seeking that freedom and justice, and you have the recipe for the greatest advancement of a nation and its economy in all of the history of the world.
As our factories spewed out goods
and our thinkers spewed out ideas, we prospered. From the fifties to the
seventies we were king of the hill. There were challenges from other
nations. Japan developed a tradition of quality and engineering, but
then they seemed to get sidetracked into a malaise that they have yet to
recover from. But their challenge, especially of our automotive
industry, was a harbinger of what was to come. Although the U.S. had a
reawakening of the desire for quality, we were also continually
improving our efficiency.
As a quality guru for one of the largest manufacturing corporations in America, my mantra was “efficiency and effectiveness.” I preached — yes that is exactly the correct term — the concepts of high quality and how they can lead to efficient and effective processes and people. Through a combination of training and use of very sharp tools, industry improved and everyone benefited.
However, this efficiency became “cost effectiveness:” a drive to produce items at the absolute lowest cost. Stores like Wal-Mart turned from “Made in America” to “Lowest Cost Provider.” At first this was a good thing. Eliminating waste and improving productivity benefitted everyone.
But soon the greed took over. Labor Unions demanded high wages and excellent benefits, but didn’t provide much in return except miles of red tape that reduced efficiency in many industries such as railroads. Corporations focused only on short-term profits and stock market prices at the expense of long-term employee commitments. Vastly improved communications through the use of computers and efficient transportation on the sea and in the air made it possible to move more and more manufacturing off shore.
Computers finally started to show their promise to improve efficiency, but also to eliminate many of the jobs we had. Gone were the draftsmen, replaced by CADCAM. Gone were the service station attendants, replaced by self pumping gas and credit card readers. Gone were highly skilled welders replaced by robots that were more consistent and didn’t take coffee breaks.
Through the powerful new digital communication systems, development leaders in the U.S. could efficiently communicate with their counterparts in Europe or India or China. Soon the work began to move out of the U.S. I even heard a rumor once that McDonalds had people in the Caribbean that actually handled the drive through ordering via communication satellite. That wasn’t true, but it did demonstrate how technology made it possible to outsource most every job to a country with a lower standard of living and a correspondingly lower wage level. Even the question “do you want fires with that” was moved to the computer screen. In this last example it appears it is more efficient to let an actual human take your hamburger order, but don’t assume that person behind the counter is planning on a career in food service.
As all but the most menial jobs disappeared over the borders, our own protection such as minimum wage was quickly eclipsed by inflation and political in-fighting. Companies with high paid workers that enjoyed excellent benefits were out-priced by cut-rate providers who didn’t pay their workers as much and provided little if no benefits. In order to compete in this “flat world,” more and more companies lowered the rewards to hard working employees or they went out of business all together. I remember when Zenith became the last U.S. manufacturer to build a TV in the U.S. Check the store shelves for a Zenith flat-screen today.
And now we are starting the second decade of the new millennium and we are reaping all that we sowed. We have become a consumer nation. We are no longer a manufacturing culture, just a buying culture. The top people at these companies benefited from the increased wealth, and, by sending the manufacturing out of the country, they devastated the working class. The only way to remain the number one consumer nation was to borrow. And did we ever. Forgetting all the lessons of the great depression and a culture of hard work and saving, we became the spending and borrowing giants of the new age.
And the engineers who design and develop these modern miracles? Most American school kids are not interested in learning the math and science needed to keep up with the digital revolution. They’ve got their computers and smartphones, but they don’t want to learn how they work or what’s inside them. They’re much more interested in posting pictures on-line and using the latest social media.
So that brings us to today. We’re mired in debt, both public and private. We see our institutions crumbling around us along with our abandoned factories. Our colleges and universities, still the best in the world, are filled with students from other nations with the desire to learn. We’ve added pages and pages of regulations to protect our environment, and most of those rules have just increased the rate of sending the work to other countries. We’re about to be eclipsed by the largest nation in the world, a nation without freedom, a nation of unsafe mines, environmental disasters, child labor, and workshops the like of which we haven’t seen in the West for over one hundred years. And our political system? Just read the headlines in the paper on any given day. That should answer that question.
Yet we keep on buying our gadgets. Shiny trinkets of electronic joy that we hold close to our hearts as we read the stories of how they were built in factories running 16-hour workdays and workers living in company dormitories.
As our high tech companies report record profits, we hear about abuses in their supply chains. We hear about “Foxconn,” a very American sounding name for one of the largest manufacturers in China. You may have read about Foxconn and their problems with worker suicides, explosions at their factories, or the poor way they treat their employees. Most associate Foxconn with Apple, the producer of all the wonderful toys I outlined in my first paragraph.
Apple may be the poster child for manufacturing abroad, but HP also uses Foxconn heavily. So does Dell and Microsoft and most of the other technology companies here in the U.S. you would recognize. Every electronic device you have on you right now goes through China. The data center that powers the cloud behind those devices were also made by folks stacked in tech dorms in China. The minerals in the battery were mined somewhere. Deep down do you really give a rat’s ass about the working conditions that created those relatively inexpensive devices? Of course not, you’re from a Western economy. And from what I can tell you’re still buying as much tech gear as you can.
Now comes the political season. We have the best politicians money can buy. The new working class in America is lawyers and lobbyists and our senators and congressmen and women hear only the voice of money in the form of legal bribes called campaign contributions. This is the political season. Lot’s of high-sounding rhetoric and damn little actual work being done by that group of “one percenters.” Don’t expect anything to change. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
So what’s a poor boy to do? Except to sing for a rock-and-roll band. I don’t know about you, but I know what I’m going to do. I’m rolling up my sleeves. I’m putting on my hoodie. You’ll see me any night, out on the street, trying to make a difference to those less fortunate. You’ll see me during the day. Driving my truck. Picking up things people no longer want to give to those that are in need and to provide money to build houses for those that don’t have a house.
You won’t find me sitting in my living room, watching TV, eating starchy meals and drinking beer. I have no time for that or for those that just sit there and bemoan how bad things are. Get up. Do something. I don’t expect anyone to give up his or her high-tech gadgets. I don’t want to return to 1910.
But I do want to see people doing well. I want to see whole families. I want to see people eating — and eating healthy. I want to see people respecting each other rather than dividing up into groups that complain how some other group has been the downfall of the U.S.A.
And, while I’m at it, I want to see people thanking the troops that are returning from fighting for their country. They didn’t start the wars. They only showed their bravery and patriotism by volunteering to defend this way of life. Don’t blame them. Thank them for all they did. That’s an old fashioned idea that we could use more of. A little self-sacrifice and concern for the person on your left and on your right. That’s the antidote to greed. If we would all care a little more about each other and not just watch out for ourselves. That would be a change for good.
Maybe a little less posting on Facebook and a little more time with family and friends and community. You do remember what friends are? Not that list on the computer screen, but your neighbors and folks you meet at the store.
It may be too late. Things may have gone so far that they can’t be changed. It is called a tipping point. Maybe it is the tide of history and can’t be stopped. Maybe it’s someone else’s turn to be great.
I don’t care. No-one knows what is next. I’m going to light a few candles and let someone else curse the darkness. I’m always happier when I’m doing something. That’s my answer.