4.16.2008

MACHINES CHEAT, PHILADELPHIA WINS

There it was, on the back page of the front section of today's Inky, in big white letters against a red background: "CHINA CHEATS. PHILADELPHIA LOSES." (The "I" in China was dotted with a yellow star, in case you weren't sure we were talking about China here.) It was a full-page ad taken out by the Alliance for American Manufacturing, and it went on to say that Pennsylvania has lost over 200,000 manufacturing jobs to 2000 - because of China. It concluded like this: "We need a President and a Congress who will stand up to China. Until then, China will continue to illegally subsidize their industries, keep the value of their currency low, dump their products in the US and steal our jobs. Don't let them get away with it."

Wow. Where to start? How about the fact that automation is the reason for most of our manufacturing job reductions. Or that the US is also still in the business of subsidizing industries and has a weak dollar. The last time I checked, "dumping their products in the US" was seen as a good thing for consumers who are glad that global competition has meant goods that are better in quality AND lower in price. Speaking of which, if another country's workers can produce goods that are better in quality AND lower in price (Japanese cars in the 1980's, Chinese consumer goods in the 2000's), let's get out of those jobs and into ones that we can do better, instead of acting as if we're entitled to "our" jobs and becoming uncompetitive in them means that someone "stole" them from us.

Mind you, China does have a lot of reform to do: political, economic, environmental, and social. It is good public policy to invest taxpayer dollars in figuring out how to help manufacturing workers and manufacturing towns transition to higher and better functions. And we do need a President and Congress who can get tough, for the sake of US workers and the US economy, as well as for the sake of the global economy and our shared environmental challenges.

But I'm a little tired of the China-bashing. We didn't lose manufacturing jobs because China cheated. We lost them because machines "cheat": they can work 24 hours a day, they don't retire and collect pensions, and they can do certain tasks better and faster than humans. And Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the US have all "won" as a result of this "cheating" - our standard of living has never been higher, less and less of us work bone-crushingly menial jobs, and most consumer products are extraordinarily affordable.

Let's not scapegoat the Chinese or the machines; both have helped our quality of life. And we've got enough to worry about as it is: we're irreversibly transitioning to a modern, knowledge-based economy, and not enough of our children (or adults, for that matter) are getting the education they need to make their contribution.
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