All of my adult life I have watched the steady progression of manufacturing jobs moving out of the country. Two of the most damaging moves have been NAFTA and free trade with China. American workers were simply sold out, they argued a bit but eventually forgot about it. Politicians this last generation stopped thinking about the long term effects of their decisions. They simply stopped caring about anything but the next election. There were many who offered up concerns when these free trade agreements were proposed. It looks like they were correct.
Think for a moment about where the things you use everyday come from. Shoes, clothes, furniture, cars, utensils, carpet, paint, tools and much more at one time were made in America by Americans. It is hard to find one of these products actually still made here, and you certainly cannot find them at a competitive price. We have lost the majority of our manufacturing power in the last three decades. Factories are sitting empty and decaying in our cities and small towns. For generations there was always the option of going down to the nearest factory and simply getting a job. This was good for those that did not want to go on to college or trade school. That option is no longer available, service options are all that they have. Mowing yards, waiting tables and washing cars are not a substitute for building things. People who in the past would have had a successful career in manufacturing are ending up on welfare, this is a hard a painful truth we need to face. I hear people complain about the lost work ethic in our country, these same people should stop pretending the same opportunities they had still exist. They do not.
Let’s look for a moment at the concept of free trade. The idea of free trade is that our economy is so powerful we can use it as a bargaining tool to get other countries to behave how we want them to. We will agree to free trade with you and allow you to feed on our wealth if you do x, y or z. It is a political tool to get what we want in the geopolitical sphere. Unfortunately we have become addicted to cheap products. Products from China dominate our households, we make calls to help desks across the world, and we send our hard earned and saved dollars to all these countries while wondering why so many are out of work. We forgot why we did it in the first place and now the addiction is so severe we are afraid to stop.
A real Achilles heel of our form of democracy is we cannot seem to kill anything once it serves its purpose. The tax code grows but never shrinks, welfare continues without end, and free trade never ends once started. Honestly, this is the habit we must break. A free trade agreement that truly ends could serve a purpose. A free trade agreement that becomes a permanent load on our economy is deadly. We have seen this in the complete destruction of entire industries in America. We now have a serious problem because this current generation is not being trained to build anything. Our ability to manufacture will take substantial time to rebuild. There are those that propose that robotics and advanced manufacturing technologies will start up a new cottage industry. I agree this is a good thing and may make the path back to manufacturing possible, the hole in this thought is what we are teaching this generation.
With manufacturing all but gone, construction is the last industry where making something is taught. Trade schools have continued to thrive in the construction industry but this too is in danger of changing. The latest recession has deeply affected construction and their are many that believe it will be very slow to recover. Because of the lack of manufacturing jobs and the lack of construction opportunities, students in today’s high schools are being steered toward the service sector. Schools are filling with students looking at restaurant management, nursing, teaching, social work, psychology, coaching and many others. These young people do not have in their mind the creation of value, they are looking to fill a need. This is an alarming trend and one that should concern us.
The price we are paying for these free trade agreements is not even obvious yet. Worse than the loss of jobs is the loss of the ability to create value. One bit of irony is that free trade agreements have become so common they do not even make the news, they are completely accepted and ignored. As of this writing I believe there are four free trade agreements floating in Washington with very little fanfare around them. It is true that these last decades we have not been using up our natural resources, we still have more than almost anyone. When we need them again will we know what to do with them?