The best known symbol of the United States is the Statue of Liberty. It was a gift from the people of France, with a framework designed by Gustave Eiffel. (Yes, the same gent that designed the Eiffel Tower.) Eiffel’s Liberty statue armature design was clever, and made the statue an amazingly lightweight for a structure that towers 151 feet tall. Rather than a traditional solid masonry statue, Lady Liberty is built on a hollow framework to which copper sheets are attached. I have recently come to realize that the Statue of Liberty is a fitting symbol for the United States in this new century. We are now a hollow nation.
In the past 30 years our manufacturing infrastructure has been gutted. Countless industries have moved their manufacturing offshore. Political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan summed it up well in a 2003 article for The American Conservative:
“Across America the story is the same: steel and lumber mills going into bankruptcy; textile plants moving to the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and the Far East; auto plants closing and opening overseas; American mines being sealed and farms vanishing. Seven hundred thousand textile workers—many of them minorities and single women—have lost their jobs since NAFTA passed in 1993.”
The following are a few random observations that illustrate just how hollow our nation has become::
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the home of the “Steelers” football team now produces precious little steel. Steel production went into steep decline in the 1970s and has never recovered. The big Pittsburgh steel companies can’t compete with foreign steel, some of which is state-subsidized. Sadly, the decline that starting in the 1970s has continued. The state of Pennsylvania lost another 202,000 manufacturing jobs from 2001 to 2007.
Ironically, many inventions that either originated in the US, or that were co-developed here are no longer produced in significant numbers, or even produced at all. These include the sewing machine and the television.
With each passing year, imported automobiles have gained market share in the US. The recent spike in fuel prices will make small imported cars even more popular.
The loss of American manufacturing and simultaneous increase in imports has led to some absurdities. Just try to find a pair of American-made tennis shoes in sizes for children. It seems that 95% of the tennis shoes are made in mainland China, and the rest are made in other Asian countries like Malaysia.
One of our advertisers, Wiggy’s, is one the last remaining handful of sleeping bag manufacturers that has a factory in the US. Nearly all of their competitors have switched to having bags with their label made offshore.
Even trucks and heavy equipment are getting foreign competition. A decade ago, seeing a foreign-made heavy truck was a rarity. But now, it is not unusual to see A truck made by Volvo. I’m also starting to notice more Asian-built excavators, even here in the “Buy American” heartland.
America is also suffering from a loss of technological leadership. This has led to the so-called “Geek Gap”. In another decade, China and India will no longer be dependent on US innovation. They will be the technological leaders.
Our dependence on imported oil has only worsened since the 1970s. If an OPEC oil embargo were to happen today, it would be devastating.
Roads, bridges, and tunnels in poor repair. Freeways designed in the 1950s and 1906s are now insufficient for current traffic flows, causing traffic delays that hinder economic efficiency.
Six decades ago, we helped win the Second World War because of our manufacturing strength. Given the decline in US manufacturing, I doubt that we could duplicate that feat. The erosion of the US defense manufacturing base is troubling. If supplies of foreign-made components were to be disrupted, we would be hard pressed to build many high technology weapons systems. I wrote about this trend when I was on the staff of Defense Electronics magazine in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, our reliance on imported parts–particularly microcircuits and LEDs–has increased considerably. I’m talking not just about competitiveness. I’m talking about physical survival as a nation. If we have to fight a protracted major war–something similar to the Second World War–we might just lack supplies of the requisite little “fiddly bits”. Too many of them are imported.
Ditto for raw materials. In the 1970s and 1980s, the US Department of Defense (DOD) created a $6.5 billion strategic stockpile program, which set aside “440,000 troy ounces of platinum, 8,500 tons of chromium, 129,000 tons of natural rubber, 47 million pounds of cobalt and more than 5 million carats of diamonds.” But since the end of the Cold war, there have been calls to sell the stockpile off as “obsolete” since it would be a great “cost saving measure”. Some claim that all that is needed is to set aside $24 million worth of iridium, tantalum and quartz crystal. What madness. Without tech strategic reserve there is no way that we could fight a major war that involved the disruption of shipping and air transport. There is no way, whatsoever.
Clearly, something has to change if the US is going to remain competitive in manufacturing and retain its ability to fight a protracted war. I’m not calling for government-mandated protectionism. I’m just suggesting that the “Buy American” ethic needs to be renewed. Look at labels before you make a purchase. Buy American when when you can. And if a particular item is not domestically made, then buy used items instead of new. (Typically, the older items are American made, but in any case you at least won’t be sending more cash offshore.)
In many ways, The United States is entering an era that is analogous to what happened to Spain, in the waning days of their empire. Like the US is today, they were essentially a naval power. They got involved in some overseas adventures that in the long run were not profitable, using lots of borrowed money. When their credit ran out, they were forced to scale back drastically. Spain was eventually relegated to the status of a third rate power. But I should mention that in their case, their timing was particularly bad. Spain was starved of credit just as the industrial revolution was getting underway. So they essentially “missed the boat” on industrialization.
In summary, we are indeed now a hollow nation. As individuals with an interest in preparedness, we need to recognize that. At the personal level, we need to mitigate the risks that the dependence on imports has created. We should stock up, and do our best to Buy American, as we do so. We also need to recognize the macro level economic instability that the trade deficit and dependence on foreign financing have created. Be ready for a deep, long recession or even a depression. A sharp economic decline is very likely coming, and coming soon.