Good news on Wall Street does not equal good news on Main Street. America is recovering from the recession, but not the middle class America. There’s an old saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Factory Man by Beth Macy is a book about John D. Bassett III, the history of Bassett Furniture, and JBIII’s fight against globalization. In one chapter, the tough old Bassett who fights tooth and claw to keep his factories and workers in America, says you don’t fight globalization with MBAs but with coaches who know how to compete. His company Vaughan Bassett Furniture came out with the Cottage Collection line of furniture that was easy to manufacture, quick to ship, designed making it hard to import, competed on price and was stylistically more appealing than the competition coming in on container ships. He had to use higher tech machines and fewer workers, but it was made in America and it sold like crazy.
There are businessmen, historians and economists that teach for a country to thrive it must have a robust middle class and it must make things. America has stopped making things, losing 5 million manufacturing jobs in a decade, and our middle class has been shrinking since the 1970s. The relentless drive to increase the bottom line by selling cheap has forced corporations to chase low cost labor around the globe. As Beth Macy reports, globalization means Americans can buy lower cost furniture that may even be better made, but overall more Americans can’t afford globalized bargains because their jobs at making things went overseas to make those bargains. And we’re talking about people fighting to keep $13 an hour jobs, not union wages. Now they are trying to find part-time work at minimal wage, or even catch-as-catch can work for $4 an hour.
Factory Man provides several pieces of the puzzle I’ve found lately that illustrates the current economic landscape. Capital in the Twenty-First Century offers many more revealing pieces, and books like The Unwinding by George Packer offer other significant pieces. Plus I’m reading hundreds of articles on the internet about business and economics that fill in holes too. I’ve put together enough pieces that I think I can see a general outline, and it’s not good.
I am reminded of a lesson I learned from a SF book back in the 1960s, Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. A kid from a backward planet wants to run off and see the galaxy, and he is given advice by an old man. The kid is told there are three kinds of thinking:
People who grow up in a homogenous society are taught rules, mores, etiquette, customs, beliefs that are simple, easy to understand and are often black and white in their exactness. Think of ISIS in Iraq. If you don’t pray a certain way, off with your head. If a simplex person then travels to another culture they will find many rules, mores, etiquette, customs and beliefs that conflict with their simplex beliefs. To survive requires thinking in a complex way. Living becomes hard, especially if you want to keep your old ways of thinking, yet let others live with their ways of thinking. Multiplex thinking is when you can believe two things that on the surface appears to be polar opposites. For example, being an atheist that supports freedom of religion in the separation of the church and state. It is multiplex thinking to hold the belief that all religions and non religions are better supported if the government doesn’t endorse any one religion.
Factory Man is a very multiplex thinking book. We never know if John Bassett III is a hero or asshole, but is shown in countless roles, often conflicting. Macy doesn’t say if globalization is good or evil, but she provides many examples of pro and con impacts. The book doesn’t tell us if exporting jobs was right or wrong, but Macy provides many personal stories about what happens when globalization changes peoples lives. What Macy shows us is the impact of these people and ideas on other people, and as the reader, we must come up with our own multiplex view of the book. But to understand a true multiplex view of Factory Man requires reading many other books. It helps to have read The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, the guru for globalism. If you think simplex and only worry about what’s good for America you will fail just as fast as accepting globalism as a complex solution.
Macy’s multiplex take on globalism still tends to lend towards one side, since her sympathy is with millions of American workers who have lost their jobs. Marc Levinson, who wrote another view of globalism in The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger reviews Factory Man at the Wall Street Journal. He concludes:
Globalization takes the blame for many ills these days. But the implosion that Ms. Macy chronicles owes less to import competition than to executives in a sheltered industry who failed to keep up with a changing world. It is to his credit that John D. Bassett III thought differently. It is the country’s loss that so many of his counterparts did not.
I tend to agree Levinson and JBIII, and think “Made in America” must compete by competing—that to counter the negative side of globalism there must be some localism that fights back with a passion, and JBIII was one such person. Most of JBIII peers, economists, business journalists, business school PhDs hated his protectionist stance, but like JBIII points out over and over again, the laws were in place, and he had no trouble proving wrong doing.
As wages rise overseas, some manufacturing has trickled back to America. Globalism of the 2020s will be far different than the 2000s. To actually achieve multiplex thinking with global economics will require getting beyond the philosophy that low cost is the only way to compete. Consumers need to stop buying by the cheapest price. There’s another book to read on that subject, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell.
We need to consider many factors in our buying decisions. First and foremost, what does making this product do to the Earth? Second is to ask how it will improve our life. Third is to consider how the success of this product will improve the lives of others and the economy. And finally, we need to consider the price. Will paying 25% more help the Earth, get you a better product, and put someone in the middle class? Then paying more means getting a lot more.
We don’t need more rich people, we have plenty of them, what we need is more middle class people and fewer poor people. Achieving that goal will actually create even more rich people. That’s multiplex thinking. It’s too bad our business leaders think so simplex and compete by price alone, never considering the impact to the Earth, the economy and their customers.
Factory Man is actually a very emotional book, that often made me laugh and cry. It’s down right inspiring too. Which is pretty weird when you think it’s about furniture manufacturing. The New York Times even reviews it suggesting it would be a great movie. Tom Hanks actually tweeted the author that he gave it 142 stars.
JWH – 8/20/14
5 thoughts on “Making Things in America Again”
You’re an excellent essayist. I’m not sure how much feedback you get, but someone needs to tell you how good you are at this.
Thanks Mike. It’s always great to get a little ego boost. (or egoboo as fans used to say)
Yes, I’ll certainly agree with that!
But I don’t often comment unless I disagree with you, Jim. It’s kind of funny, since we agree about most things.
I guess it just seems more useful to speak up when I disagree. Certainly, it’s more valuable to me as a blogger, when people tell me their reasons for disagreeing (not that I don’t like hearing positive comments, of course).
Labor is still a big part of manufacturing, and it’s hard to compete with third-world countries where wages are nothing, civil rights minimal, and environmental protection nonexistent.
And although this is improving economies in the poorest countries in the world – improving wages, too – it’s creating a massive downward pressure on wages and benefits in America. Since we started out with a wealthy middle class, heading towards the mean isn’t doing us any favors.
I always thought the solution to this was education. If we can no longer compete on the low end, we need to compete on the high end. But we’re being out-competed in education, too. We Americans don’t seem to value education anymore – certainly not enough to pay taxes to support it.
The only things we want to spend money on are the military and prisons (although I don’t know how we can maintain a lead in military technology if we don’t ‘believe’ in science). Well, we don’t have to worry about that, since Jesus is coming back any day now, huh? LOL
Bill, you’re right, it’s common practice for people to only comment when they disagree.
We really are devaluing education on many levels and fronts. I used to work at a College of Education and the conservatives in the state capitol are doing everything they can to undermine the licensure process. Many groups are doing everything they can to lower the cost of education, and reduce their taxes, or find ways to get education tax money for their children’s private education. Besides trying to make teachers as easy to replace as fast food workers, they want to control what is being taught too.
If I was an old codger I’d bitch all the time that this country is going down the drain.
I had this saved on pocket for some time now but finally read it today.
Great, great post Jim!!
You have also increased my Goodreads to-read list by two more books.