Independence {from China} Day

The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits barely fell last week…suggesting the labor market was struggling to regain momentum…Employment stumbled badly in May, with employers adding just 54,000 jobs—the fewest in eight months… 

Jobs Picture Remains Ugly as Weekly Claims Still High,” June 30, 2011cnbc.com

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As promised, I returned the Made in Korea and China cushions. The Pier 1 Imports sales clerk, contrary to my plan, didn’t ask if I’d found anything wrong with my purchase, and thus edited the high drama script that had played out in my Hollywood Girl imagination. But I did manage to say (in a nod to John Adams / Public Passions): “I’m giving up anything that’s not made in the U.S.A. this year, so I can’t keep these.” The sales clerk, who wore a Pier 1 Imports apron, didn’t so much as blink. Here’s how it played out:

Sales Clerk: “Do you have your receipt?”

Me: (Nodding, handing it over.)

Clerk: “Would you like to look around for something else before I do the return?”

Me: “No…well I would if only something in here was made in the U.S.A, but that’s kinda silly, right? I mean, this is Pier 1 Imports…it’s my fault for even coming in…it’s just everything looks so great…so colorful…I love those big glass vases…so cool…sorry…no, I won’t be looking around…” (At this point I actually caressed the very cushions I was returning. They felt soft and comfortable, like my favorite well-worn Made in China Costco bathrobe.)  

Me: “Don’t you love these cushions’ green color? These are so perfect, really…”

Clerk: (Says nothing but thinks: Crazy lady on aisle two. Somebody help me.)

As the now agitated and perhaps even a little frightened sales clerk rang up my return, Bahman {Okabashi} Irvani’s words ran through my mind and confused the situation: I don’t think I would necessarily advocate Buy American and nothing else.

Me: (Thinking it over.) Should I keep my Pier 1 Imports purchases? I’ve been so careful to buy only American-made products. Surely Mr. Irvani would bless this offshore-made purchase.

Jiminy Cricket (Piping in out of nowhere): Always let your conscience be your guide.

Me: (Thinking. Loudly.) Oh shut up.

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Don / Richie C–the anti-Martha-Stewart-spouse–couldn’t care less whether our wicker patio furniture has lime green chenille cushions or no cushions at all. He’s thrilled I returned the foreign made goods. As we finished our {grown in California} artichokes, he smiled (by the way, although he acts like Richie Cunningham, to me he looks like Steve McQueen) and said: “Hey, this project is working out great. At this rate, we may come out ahead budget-wise. In any case, we’d better put the patio furniture in the garage. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow.”

Dark clouds had indeed floated across the otherwise pink evening sky. We hauled in the cushion-deprived wicker. Shut the garage door. The next day, rain pounded the roof. A cold, hard, winter-worthy rain. The furnace clicked on, heat blew into the house through the floor vents. It was only a few days until July 4th. The disorienting weather matched my equally off-kilter mood. It’s nearly the 4th. Dad’s gone. How can this be?

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Dad always got a bang, so to speak, out of the 4th of July. When my siblings and I were kids growing up in the San Fernando Valley, we counted down the minutes until dark. I have no idea where Dad or the rest of the men in the neighborhood bought boxes and boxes of fireworks and sparklers. In those regulation-free days, incendiaries seemed to be easily found despite public service announcements wishing everyone a “safe and sane Independence Day celebration.”

By nightfall my sisters and I sat in sleeveless shirts and shorts, our feet bare, on the curb in front of our house. The cement was still warm from the day’s triple-digit heat. Our brothers hauled buckets of water to the middle of the asphalt street. If flames lingered after a rocket launch, they’d douse them with water. The situation teetered on disaster, which is what made it such fun. Sparklers lit up our smiling, sunburned faces and chlorine-green hair. Fireworks sputtered and zigzagged and eventually (fingers crossed) burst into the night sky. We clapped. Dad smiled. “Hey, that was a good one. Let’s see, have we got any more?”  

Here’s the thing: I’d be willing to bet that back in the late 50s and early 60s everything in that scene I just described was still Made in the U.S.A. The asphalt for the streets. The cement for the curbs. The shirts and shorts my sisters and I wore. The hose that delivered the water to the buckets. The buckets themselves. The fireworks. We were just a few years from losing manufacturing of all those products to places overseas. Not to sound too morose, but anyone know what’s happened to our country? Has our country, like faulty fireworks, gone haywire?

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On June 26, The New York Times ran a news story called Bridge Comes to San Francisco with a Made in China Label. It’s painful to read, especially for those of us in California, but even more so for those of us here in the SF Bay area. The first sentence: “Talk about outsourcing.” The piece goes on to say that the $7.2 billion Bay Bridge project was outsourced to a 1.2 square mile manufacturing facility in Shanghai, China. “The selection of the state-owned Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company was a surprise, though, because the company made port cranes and had no bridge building experience.” Chinese workers–3,000 of them–arrive at 7 a.m. and leave at 11 p.m. They’re paid $12 a day. Read on:

“Industry groups in the United States and other countries have raised questions about the safety and quality of Chinese workmanship on such projects. Indeed, China has had quality control problems ranging from tainted milk to poorly built schools…

“To ensure the bridge meets safety standards, 250 employees and consultants working for the state of California and American Bridge / Fluor also took up residence in Shanghai.”

The completed bridge sections will be transported 6,500 miles away to Oakland, California.

“The assembly work in California, and the pouring of the concrete road surface, will be done by Americans. But construction of the bridge decks and the materials that went into them are a Made in China affair. California officials say the state saved hundreds of millions of dollars by turning to China.”

So I guess if you–like Mr. Irvani and sometimes even myself–believe in a 20% Buy-American solution, the Chinese-made Bay Bridge offers an example of the way to do things in this globalized world. Sounds like about 80% of the project is being done in China. So we should be satisfied with that, right? Um, no.

California’s current unemployment rate is 11.9%. We can’t afford to toss 3,000 jobs–low paying or not–overseas. How much money does California really “save” when the cost of unemployment benefits and loss of capital are figured in? I’m no economist, but I have to wonder: what’s the true cost of an outsourced bridge?

In 1959–one of the years we shot off those crazy fireworks in the neighborhood street–the national unemployment rate was 5%. It’s no mystery to see where jobs have gone since then. The question is: how do we get them back? If we can figure that out, we’d really have reason to celebrate our country’s independence on the Fourth of July. Independence from China, that is.

And one last thought, courtesy of Don / Richie C / Steve McQueen. After we’d put away the wicker and discussed the 20% Buy American philosophy, he said this: “Ok, let’s see. Would China do the same for us? Would they outsource 80% of an equally expensive project to be done here, giving 3,000 American workers jobs? Would they buy 80% of our exports? If they’d reciprocate, I’d be fine with that.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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One Response to Independence {from China} Day

  1. There is more to this California bridge outsourcing story than is covered in the press, and not in a good way.

    A multinational company like Fluor may never be taxed in the USA on the portion of its income earned in China. These companies routinely exploit provisions of the tax code by keeping the money earned overseas to avoid that share of the federal corporate income tax. In principle these earnings, usually in the form of cash, could be repatriated at any time, but in practice these companies just don’t do it.

    When Congress allowed repatriation at a reduced rate in 2004 and 2005, some of this money did make it back to our shores. It did not add to jobs, which was the reason for the bill, and it did not significantly add to capital investment. For the most part the money went to enrich shareholders and company executives.

    Global companies like Levis, which doesn’t make a single pair of jeans in North America, are as American as the panda bear.