I’m really not a great fan of tax breaks and such to attract or maintain companies, but I’m realistic enough to understand that most states and regions use these as one of the weapons in their arsenal to attract new companies. (Case in point: last year Governor Hogan proposed a ten-year tax break for companies relocating to certain parts of Maryland, but the proposal went nowhere.) So it was with Carrier Corporation, which was supposed to abandon the state of Indiana for Mexico but brought that move to a screeching halt at the behest of President-elect Trump and his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence.
One thing that has been brought out in the general conversation over Carrier’s change of heart was the Trump proposal to punish companies that move overseas. He’s proposing a 35 percent tariff on such firms, so under his idea had Carrier moved its operations to Mexico they would have had a 35% surcharge on their product.
But the incoming President is also advocating for a series of proposals to make America more business-friendly, such as cutting regulations and lowering the corporate income tax from roughly 35 to 40 percent down to about 15 percent. (These are ballpark figures, but that’s okay since Trump only sees these as starting points for negotiation anyway.)
The reason I bring this up is to make the case that all the carrots should be utilized before a stick is ever brought out. It’s patently obvious that America doesn’t make things like it used to, but the factors of why are most important. Just off the top of my head, here are some possible reasons:
- Overseas labor costs are far cheaper.
- There are fewer labor and environmental regulations to deal with.
- China is a larger market overall and is growing in its consumerism.
- The tax structure overseas is more beneficial.
However, even if all these things are true, it boggles my mind that it’s possible to profit by creating a product halfway around the world and shipping it back here on a slow boat when the most affluent consumers are still in the good old U. S. of A.
And then you have certain advantages we can exploit for ourselves: a first-class transportation system, a ready-made skilled workforce, and sufficient, reliable energy that’s inexpensive. Unfortunately, previous administrations were reluctant to allow companies to use these advantages, so they departed for greener pastures. In the case of labor-intensive products such as clothing, it’s not likely they will be coming back.
But at the same time we are looking to make things in America, it’s worth pointing out that these things that we can make use more and more automation to create. I’ll jump across the pond for this example, but a reason cited for the demise of the long-running Land Rover Defender model (a 67-year run) was that:
Five hundred workers build the car by hand – there are fewer than 10 robots on the whole line; step across to the Range Rover line on the other side of the Lode Lane, Solihull factory and you’ll find 328 robots.
If you assume that each robot takes the place of a single employee (which is probably generous to the employees) that means about 1/3 the manpower built the Range Rover compared to the Defender. The same is true in Detroit and Japan. To a manufacturer, there’s a lot of appeal to automation: it doesn’t take smoke breaks or mental health days, won’t come back from its lunch break drunk or stoned, and won’t go on strike for ever-increasing health care benefits or wages. The quality of work is very consistent, too, and once set up there’s no such thing as training a new hire.
For decades, though, workers have used machines to assist them in creating products – even the assembly line itself was a vast machine that automated the process of moving the frame of the car along as its component parts were added. Plastic products aren’t really created by hand, but by machines that extrude the parts for them – an offshoot of the process is 3D printing. When you come right down to it, the Carrier plant is one where premade components such as a motor, fan, cooling unit, outside shell, and electronics are assembled to create a larger product, which is where the value is added in this case. There’s not a huge amount of skill needed to put these things together – the skill comes from the design of these units to keep up with the demands of regulation, consumer preferences, and profitability. (Apparently the luckless Land Rover Defender stopped keeping up with these demands.)
But no amount of physical skill can overcome the capricious nature of government whim, and this is where Trump’s idea becomes somewhat impractical. Let’s say in three years Carrier decides it has to move production to Mexico, so it becomes subject to the 35% tax. A unit that cost $10,000 will now have to run at $13,500.
On the other hand, Carrier’s competitor Fujitsu, which is headquartered in Japan, may have a price for a similar unit of $11,000 because they have to ship it over. (For the sake of argument, I’ll assume their products are made overseas.) Thanks to Trump’s proposal, they can raise their price to $12,500 – making more profit for their foreign owners yet still undercutting their competition. Similarly, if Trump decides to go full-bore protectionist and slap tariffs on imported items, there’s no doubt everyone else will do the same thing and that will kill our export market.
I understand the frustration Americans have when they perceive China and others are beating us economically because they are cheating. Truthfully, they could be absolutely correct – in the case of China, I put nothing past Communist scum. But the solution is to make China less attractive by making ourselves more attractive, not trying to punish people. If Trump wants his 35% penalty, that should be the absolute last resort once all other efforts have been made to make our nation as business-friendly as possible. Unfortunately, I think The Donald is too vindictive for his own good.
Someone will pay for all these Carrier incentives, and I suspect these far smaller businesses will be the ones who suffer for the sins of others around the world.