Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pining Away for an America of Protectionism, Socks, Ironing Boards and Poverty

When I first read this recent Yahoo Finance article on "10 American Industries Still Hanging On" by Donn Fresard, Matthew Mallon, and Justin Rohrlich, I really thought it was a parody.  On further review, however, I'm pretty sure that the piece, which laments the demise of American manufacturing and praises a few plucky upstarts clinging to survival against a pernicious onslaught of foreign competition, is real.  And you'll never guess how many of the highlighted companies manage to "survive."   Yep, good ol' fashioned protectionism:
For most of the last century, the United States dominated global manufacturing -- no country could compete with America's output.

In recent years, however, the news about domestic manufacturing has been discouraging, if not devastating. Industry surveys have shown a decline in most sectors as the US continues to lose its factories to cheaper labor markets overseas, and especially to China.

In 2010, the last remaining American flatware factory shut its doors. So did the nation's last sardine cannery. Recent years have seen the shuttering of America's last coat hanger factory, last button down shirt factory, and the entire sheetrock-producing town of Empire, Nevada -- which fell victim to the desiccated US housing market.

Surprisingly, however, there remains a handful of heroic holdouts. Bloodied, battered, but not yet down for the count, there are still pockets of US manufacturing scrappy enough to keep the lights on in the face of overseas competition. Here's a look at 10 survivors worth celebrating....

SPARKLERS: Few products say summer in America like the sparkler. But without Diamond Sparkler of Youngstown, Ohio, it would be a cold winter for domestic sparkler production. Diamond has been in Youngstown since 1985, when Phantom Fireworks operator B.J. Alan bought Chicago's Acme sparkler manufacturer and brought its operations to Ohio. At that point, cheaper Chinese sparklers had snuffed out all but three US producers. By 1999, Diamond would be the lone holdout that hadn't shifted to imports. Not because it found a way to profits, however. Besides a brief tariff-related windfall, Diamond Sparkler never been a moneymaker for its parent firm, whose owner said he bought the division because he couldn't "envision something as American as sparklers, with its association with the (Fourth) of July, not being made in this country."...

SOCKS: To get an idea of what's happened to the American sock industry, take a look at Fort Payne, Alabama. Until a few years ago, the town of about 14,000 billed itself as the "Sock Capital of the World." They weren't spinning a yarn, either: As late as 2007, according to the Hosiery Association, if an American put on a pair of socks, the odds were about 1 in 8 they'd be rolling a product of Fort Payne/DeKalb County onto their hooves. Most of the area's workforce was employed in its sock mills, which then numbered 125 to 150. Today only 20 remain, providing roughly 600 jobs, down from 8,000 just a decade ago....

What started pulling out the thread was -- you guessed it -- globalization. An influx of cheaper hosiery, imported from the likes of China, Pakistan, and Honduras, started around the turn of the 2000s. It flipped the American sock industry on its head faster than argyle came back and again went out of style. Domestically made socks went from three-quarters of US sales to one-quarter between 1999 and 2006.

Thanks to a quirk of national politics, Fort Payne caught a break in 2005, when then-President Bush needed to swing a single vote in Congress to get his Central American Free Trade Agreement out of deadlock. The city's congressman, Robert Aderholt, was a holdout against the deal, and he took the opportunity to hold the bill hostage with a single demand: Restore the tariffs, which had been lifted in 1984, against socks seamed in Honduras. The White House complied, and the duty returned at the end of 2007. The move had little effect in the long run, and sock factories are still fleeing Fort Payne for Honduras.

IRONING BOARDS: The fact that there's only one ironing board manufacturing plant left in the Unites States has nothing to do with changing tastes in laundry after-care, or the viral spread of track-suits and t-shirts, and everything to do with retail consolidation and globalization.

Located in Seymour Indiana, HPI Seymour, owned by Chicago-based Home Products International, has been around since 1942, when it started as a tool-and-engineering shop. In the 1950s it switched to ironing-board only mode, successfully marketing a range of high-end ironing boards around the world.

But today the plant, which employs 200 people (down from 400 in 2000) and pumps out 720 boards an hour, is fighting the same stiff winds that have wiped out so much of U.S. manufacturing, despite a market that sees some 7 million ironing boards sold every year. Big chains like Wal-Mart (WMT) and Target (TGT) are still customers and anti-dumping tariffs as high as 157% against its rapacious Chinese competitors have kept the lines rolling at the plant so far. But with the chains increasingly sourcing cheaper and cheaper products from Asia, and with the tariffs coming under pressure from observers who wonder if artificially high ironing board costs for 7 million consumers are worth 200 jobs in Indiana, HPI Seymour's 69-year-old history is probably nearing its end.

PENCILS: Without tariffs against Chinese imports, you might as well erase pencil manufacturing from the ledger of American industry. And even since the US government took anti-dumping action against Chinese exporters in 1993, China's dominance of the industry here has barely slowed: American companies in 2008 produced only 14% of pencils sold stateside, whittled down by half from just four years prior.

Newell Rubbermaid's Sanford, have closed plants that employed hundreds in the past few years as they shifted production to Mexico and elsewhere. Other companies largely retreated into specialty graphite utensils, like colored and drawing pencils. "The yellow pencil basically became a Chinese commodity," Jim Weissenborn, whose family has owned General Pencil for 150 years, explained to Bloomberg news in June. "We've had to become a very boutique type of business in order to survive."

SNEAKERS: New Balance is the only major player in athletic footwear that still operates American factories, and it's hanging on by a shoestring as free-trade negotiations with Vietnam loom. The privately held Boston company has 1,000 US workers in its five New England plants, whose $10-and-up hourly wages are a quaint holdover in an industry that imports 99 percent of its product. "The company already could make more money by going overseas, and they know it," 35-year-old floor leader Scott Boulette told the Washington Post. "So we hustle."

But all the elbow grease in Norridgewock, Maine, won't keep New Balance competitive if an expected agreement with Vietnam eliminates the tariff on imported shoes, typically around 20%. The region's legislators are trying to carve out an exemption to keep New Balance's factories open. The firm's competitors like Nike and Reebok, though, seeing an opportunity for higher profits on imports and, displaying little sympathy for the scrappy northeastern holdouts, have banded together to fight the duty – or "shoe tax," as they call it. "For products that are no longer produced here and haven't been produced here for decades, there's no sense for consumers to be paying it." said Nate Herman, of the industry's lobbying group....
Sigh.  Where to begin?  Well, first let's start with the little fact that the American manufacturing sector as a whole is actually doing quite well, as these two charts (recently mentioned here) make perfectly clear:
Source: BEA

Second, let's recall that lots of American manufacturers, particularly those like Caterpillar who use low-cost imported inputs and depend on foreign demand, remain very successful.   Indeed, IndustryWeek's recently-released "2011 IW 50 Best Manufacturing Companies" lists plenty of American manufacturers who are dominating, even in this tough economy.  And although some of these companies utilize foreign facilities, many of them, like #1 ranked hard-drive manufacturer Western Digital out of California, have significant US production facilities and are hiring.  And considering that most high-tech goods are duty free because of the Information Technology Agreement, we can be pretty darn sure that Western Digital didn't make it to the top of the IW list by lobbying for government protection from foreign competition.

Odd that the authors didn't think to mention these globally-dominant firms, eh?

Third, the authors fail to mention that many manufacturers are returning to the United States because cheap labor couldn't trump the myriad benefits of domestic production.  Meanwhile, many US companies depend on  exports and foreign demand, particularly in this anemic US economic recovery, to keep their domestic doors open.  In short, "American" manufacturers are coming back to the states, and the very "globalization" that the authors repeatedly deride is actually a boon to the US economy.

Finally, the article above makes clear that many of the companies that the authors praise only exist here in the United States because of ridiculously high tariffs.  Thus, their "success" is government-induced and comes at the expense of American families and businesses who have been forced by the US government to pay higher prices for shoes, socks and other basic goods.  And even with massive government protection, the companies still can't compete.  Thus, we've all been forced to subsidize (through higher prices) failing US companies that will never, ever be competitive again.

By contrast, many of the globally-dominant companies listed in the IW 50 (or the broader IW 500) don't require government tariffs or subsidies.  But these companies aren't manufacturing basic, labor-intensive things like socks and pencils; they're mainly in high-end, high-tech, capital-intensive industries like aerospace, IT, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, biotech and heavy machinery.  And they're doing it very, very well.

I don't mean to disparage America's sock/pencil-makers, but the basic and obvious reality is that US companies have an extremely difficult - if not impossible - time competing on the lower-end of the manufacturing spectrum (even with massive government assistance).  At the same time, they're succeeding at the industrial top-end where education, technology and productivity - things at which the United States still excels - are more important than things like cheap manual labor.  And, of course, they're also succeeding through globalization and, yes, even outsourcing (see, e.g., Apple).  So to glorify the uncompetitive industries and the government protectionism that keeps them (barely) alive, while ignoring the successful American firms that don't need state assistance is more than just misleading and nonsensical, it's also harmful - if the authors somehow convince Americans to embrace protectionism and uncompetitive, inefficient American industries, we'd all be worse off.

As Cafe Hayek's Russ Roberts eloquently put it today in response to a trite NYT op-ed on the same subject: "Making stuff the cheapest way is the road to prosperity. Trying to find expensive ways to make stuff (because it once was a good idea but no longer is) is the road to poverty."

Why do Fresard, Mallon, and Rohrlich want us to run down that road?

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