Competing views on manufacturing

As a follow up and way to revise and extend remarks on Friday’s post about the Alliance for American Manufacturing, I decided to dig a little bit more into who they are and what they are proposing. The idea of “Made in America” is a sound one, for a number of reasons, but as I pointed out the AAM seems to have many of its eggs in the protectionist basket. To some extent, they have a case: even their attempt to furnish their Washington, D.C. office with exclusively American-made goods fell a little short:

Our tour began in one of the small offices, where (AAM executive director Scott) Paul showed off a desk from Washington state. But things took a turn downhill from there, when we got to the products on the desk.

“You can’t find phones, video display terminals,” says Paul. “I mean, none of that is American-made.” Paul couldn’t find American-made computers, either, though that may change following Apple’s announcement that it plans to make some Macs in the United States.

But then I found an entire AAM-backed legislative agenda, for which they linked to this subpage on the website of Delaware’s junior Senator Chris Coons. In it, we find a number of top-down legislative proposals in the areas of skills training, exports, access to capital, and “conditions necessary for growth.” At the time of its last update, about half of these proposals hadn’t been introduced as bills, with the last introduced bill being S.1400 in July of this year – either the website is not often updated or these proposals have languished on the back burner of a do-nothing, obstructionist Senate. This to me is quite telling as most of the sponsors are Democrats, who have the majority in the body.

It should be pointed out, too, that the Alliance for American Manufacturing is the brainchild of the United Steelworkers union and a “select group of America’s leading manufacturers.” The list of this select group isn’t widely disseminated, but the AAM describes that:

Leo Gerard, the International President of the United Steelworkers, and CEOs of Steelworker-represented manufacturers understood that. These leaders launched AAM in 2007 to build on the success of the “Stand Up For Steel” coalition.

The roots of that coalition date back to the 1990s, so this fight is an old one under a relatively new name since the AAM was founded in 2007. Essentially it’s a union partnership with the closed shops under its wing; a business-labor pact in name only.

Now that you understand its roots, it becomes more clear why they prescribe their menu of solutions. The steel industry is long known as a bastion of protectionism, given the charges of foreign steel dumping a decade or so back.

So are there any other solutions out there? The competing group to AAM is the National Association of Manufacturers, a group whose board is representative of over 200 industrial leaders. Their vision is somewhat different than that of the union-backed organization, although there are elements of protectionism and top-down dictates in their plan as well. Most worrisome to me is their advocacy for immigration reform, which is needed but must be done in such a manner that law-breaking is not rewarded at the expense of those who went about it in the correct manner.

Yet NAM makes one sound point:

Because of our tax, tort, energy and regulatory policies, it is 20 percent more expensive to do business in the United States than it is in the countries that are our nine largest trading partners — and that excludes the cost of labor.

And it’s not like the problem is new, particularly here in Maryland. I mentioned Friday that Ron George is perhaps the gubernatorial candidate most attuned to the problem (David Craig has his own plan as well), although all but one of the players involved at the time had their say at an October manufacturing summit. Moreover, outgoing Governor Martin O’Malley was even forced to pay lip service to the issue.

But we have had this discussion for several years, and the prescriptions which were suggested a half-decade ago languished on the bookshelf while Maryland developed a growing reputation as a state hostile to business. It’s sort of strange that what I wrote on Friday – as a person who had never seen this report – nailed their first point about “a competitive and stable business environment.” They also talked about the need for a “balanced approach” to energy rather than the heavy emphasis on renewables, which is another pet peeve of mine. (Little did they know at the time the report was compiled – just five short years ago – that America and a portion of Maryland were sitting on an energy gold mine.)

In short, the solutions to the problem seem to be there and many fall into the conservative, pro-liberty camp. If we tell the radical environmentalists and regulators to go pound sand because we have work to do, chances are more of us would indeed have more work to do and more prosperity to spread around.