Presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are about as ideologically opposite on the political spectrum as any two candidates in recent memory. Both of them, however, are in agreement on one issue: free trade.
During a debate this month in Flint, Michigan, before that state’s primary, Sanders said: “Do you know that in 1960, Detroit, Michigan, was one of the wealthiest cities in America? Flint, Michigan, was a prosperous city. But then what happened is corporate America said, ‘Why do I want to pay somebody in Michigan a living wage when I can pay slave wages in Mexico or China?’ ”
GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement a “disaster” and said America needs fair trade, not free trade.
“We will either renegotiate it or we will break it,” said Trump during a television interview. “Because, you know, every agreement has an end.”
A March 24 letter to the editor in the Tribune by Nicholas J. Ottomanelli of New Port Richey put these things in perspective. Relating a personal experience, he wrote:
“My wife had to have her car repaired. The dealer gave her a Ford loaner car. All of the stickers were still on the car. One in particular struck me with what Donald Trump is saying about manufacturing jobs. A sticker on the window shows ‘parts content information:’ U.S./Canada parts content, .07 percent; major sources of foreign parts contents: Mexico, 71 percent; final assembly point, Cuautitian, Mexico; engine, country of origin, Brazil; transmission, country of origin, Mexico. I saw no parts ‘Made in the USA’ — no steel, no plastic, no glass. No jobs for us. Wake up, America.”
Should we be surprised? For years it has been hard to find consumer products produced here. It became obvious a few years ago to a group of guys at my favorite sports bar when I bragged that I had the only piece of clothing made in America, a pair of New Balance tennis shoes. Sure enough, everything everybody else was wearing, all the way down to their underwear, was imported.
We also guessed that none of the dozens of televisions in the bar were made here. The same went for the cellphones each of us had.
The Nike shoes some guys were wearing that night were a good example of modern economic realities. Nike has about 26,000 employees in the United States but has about 1 million workers in foreign plants to make its footwear. So when President Obama touted the Trans-Pacific Partnership last year at Nike’s corporate headquarters in Oregon, he seemed to be acknowledging this new global arrangement.
Times certainly have changed from when I was growing up in what is now considered a Rust Belt city. Most of the men in my neighborhood had steady employment that provided decent pay, good benefits and, in some cases, pensions. They were unskilled or low-skilled jobs in steel mills, auto plants and other blue-collar industries that allowed laborers to raise their families in working-class comfort: a decent home, one car, one TV, but always enough to eat. And as baby boomers, most of us came from large families.
I began to notice changes in the 1970s, long before NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific pact, and I probably contributed to it when I bought a Japanese car from a family friend. That was right after the first Arab oil embargo that raised gas prices to then-unheard of levels. I wanted a vehicle that got good gas mileage and was dependable. I got that and more, which is why I bought another Toyota after that. This helped cut into U.S. automakers’ market share, which had a domino effect on supporting industries.
Sanders is right about Detroit and Flint, but their decline also can be attributed to migration of production to other states with right-to-work laws and automation.
The toll this took on Flint was best illustrated in Michael Moore’s documentary “Roger & Me” about the shutdown of General Motors plants in his home town and the hardships it caused. Moore’s portrait of the decline of what many now call postindustrial America is chilling. He talked about the social responsibility GM had to its workers, but he offered little on how those jobs could have been saved.
And neither are Trump and Sanders. For instance, Trump is upset that the iPhones Americans spend billions on are made overseas, and he says he’ll put a stop to it.
“We’re going to get Apple to build their damn computers and things in this country instead of in other countries,” Trump said in a speech in January at Liberty University in Virginia.
Apple is the world’s most valuable company, with a market capitalization of $534 billion. It designs its best-selling iPhone, iPad tablets and Mac computers in the United States but relies on partners in China and Chinese factory workers to assemble most of them. How is Trump going to force them to make their products in America? It sounds great on the campaign trail but doesn’t pass the economic reality test.
I guess Apple could do it if Americans are willing to pay a lot more for their consumer goods. According to cnet.com, “Even a rough calculation of the basic costs shows it’s an unfeasible option, leading to an iPhone with a potentially jaw-dropping price tag. … The starting price of Apple’s marquee iPhone 6S is $650 — would you be willing to pay for the phone if it was $1,300? Or more?”
Sadly, we no longer produce much of what we buy. Also, we like the low cost of a lot of the consumer goods we purchase, as any Wal-Mart shopper will attest. “Made in the USA” has been less of an option for years.
I’m afraid there’s little that can restore the old middle-class manufacturing jobs that required little skill other than a strong back and a good work ethic. If one of the presidential candidates has a viable plan to do that, I’d like to hear it.
In the meantime, I wish they would stop telling us they’re going to “protect American jobs” when, given today’s economic realities, that’s a whole easier said than done.