Saturday, October 17, 2009
American Brand Name, Chinese Computer
10 days ago I wrote an article for O'Reilly about the premature failure of my Sylvania netbook. I ended up deciding to buy an HP Mini 110 Mi Edition (more on my choices soon) and ordered it custom built to my specs directly from Hewlett-Packard. It was competitively priced (and slightly less expensive than what's on HP's website now) and I was promised that the netbook would ship within six days. The turnaround time was much better than what Dell offered. I've read mainly positive reviews of this particular netbook, including one by Ladislav Bodnar on DistroWatch Weekly. As many of you probably know I write fairly regularly for Ladislav and I definitely to respect the man and his opinions. The netbook did, in fact, ship on the sixth day: from Shangai, China.
I knew that most if not all the netbooks, laptops, and notebooks sold today are built in a handful of factories located either in mainland China or Taiwan. I was under no illusion that buying an American brand name meant an American product. What surprised me is that HP apparantly doesn't even have stock of this netbook in the U.S. and doesn't even do simple customizations here.
In recent weeks Dell announced it was closing a Winston-Salem, North Carolina manufacturing plant and giving the work to "third parties" in Mexico and other countries. Despite President Obama's campaign rehtoric about keeping American manufacturing jobs in the United States companies keep outsourcing the work offshore or moving their own facilities to other countries with less expensive labor costs, poor or no environmental regulations, and little or no protections for workers. Meanwhile unemployment in the United States continues to rise. Here in North Carolina our unemployment rate is well above the national average.
I see this continuing loss of American manufacturing capacity, which is already a small fraction of what it once was, as a long term disaster for this country. Anyone who knows their history knows that when the U.S. entered World War II it rapidly converted the then unmatched manufacturing facilities to wartime production very quickly. If a major world conflict started today or in the near future I fear that we have no ability to do the same thing again. A pretty smart guy named Albert Einstein, who was a pacifist prior to the Second World War, held much more pragmatic views after the rise of Nazism. He famously said, "So long as there are men there will be wars." Sadly I believe he was right. That makes it the height of foolishness to leave the United States in a position where it cannot be ready for war quicky no matter how much we value peace.
I've come to believe a little protectionism would go a long way, particularly when it comes to industries vital to our economy, our defense, or both. I am mindful of history and the last thing I'd want Congress and the President to do is pass something like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act during a deep recession or what, I believe in retrospect, we will call a depression. The last thing I want to do is severely curtail international trade. Having said all of that I am no longer the believer in free trade that I once was. I do feel trade will need to be a little less free and a bit more regulated to insure both American jobs and American defense capability.
The kind of severely under-regulated free trade we now have has meant lower prices for consumers. The fact that my new computer is made in China is one of the reasons it is so inexpensive. I would gladly pay more for one made in the United States. I can remember when this country was the leading manufacturer of personal computers. Today, to even recapture a small share of PC manufactuing in the U.S. would require government intervention.
Every President we've had since Ronald Reagan, Republicans and Democrats alike, have repeated the mantra of free trade over and over again. I wonder how Republicans who claim to be so concerned about national defense can justify promoting the wholesale export of manufacturing which has happened over the past 30 years. Similarly, I wonder how Democrats who claim to be so deeply concerned about the environment and workers' rights can do precisely the same when many of the countries which have succesfully imported manufacturing capacity and jobs have no such concerns. Any claim of concern about human rights by either party, by liberals or conservatives, rings hollow when we export our jobs and manufacturing capacity to countries that have abominable human rights records. It seems corporate profits and corporate lobbyists trump any and all other concerns. Greed remains the real G-d of early 21st century America.
It's way past time we examine the real costs of "free trade" instead of just parroting well worn lines about the benefits. I think if we do an honest cost-benefit analysis of free trade we will find that it is anything but free and, indeed, may do more harm than good as it is structured today.