Do you know who built your Etch A
BY FROMA HARROP Syndicated columnist: Dec. 24, 2003
I’m checking out the Christmas ornaments at the tree nursery. The air smells of
warm cider and resounds with familiar tunes. The line of ornaments, which went
by the brand, "Midwest America," reflects the tastes of yesteryear.
pick up a Santa - a dignified, slimmed-down version - and look under his boot.
The "Made in" label reads, "China." I examine a boy on a sled. Again,
Simple wooden boxes sit stacked on a nearby table - each
bearing a painted scene of a fisherman in a rowboat. If some woodsman in
Michigan's Upper Peninsula didn't craft this box, I think, I'll be darned. I am
darned. "China," it says on the bottom.
And that is the label on
nearly every Christmas item I've seen this season. "China" on the holly
tablecloth. "China" on the candlesticks. "China" on the china.
The Chinese seem to be making nearly all the things
we buy, which means we're not making them. Some 3.1 million manufacturing jobs
have disappeared since March 1998 - a big chunk of them moving to
Even jobs that go to Mexico end up in China.
China's labor is so cheap, factories are leaving Mexico and heading
Fashioning a response to the crisis in American
manufacturing is not easy. But clearly the Bush administration should be doing
more than it is doing, which is next to nothing.
For example, it could
force China to raise the value of its currency, the Yuan. China keeps its
currency value artificially low to undercut the prices of U.S. products. Some
economists put the Yuan's discount against the dollar at 40 percent.
Leading the charge is Rep. Phil English, a Republican from the industrial
northwest comer of Pennsylvania. His demand that Treasury Secretary John Snow
push China to revalue the Yuan was met with a yawn. The Bush administration
regards cheap consumer goods as a bedrock value. It won't do anything that would
raise prices. Wal-Mart wouldn't like it.
But chances are good that the
president will make some gestures toward the industrial heartland as the
election approaches. Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan are all "battleground"
states - and they are bleeding badly from losses in manufacturing.
Business looks especially grim in places like
Meadville, Pa., 40 miles south of Erie. Meadville calls itself the "Tool and Die
Source for the World." Its small precision machine shops are run by good bosses
who employ good workers at good pay. But their Chinese competitors are crushing
them. Meadville has lost 30 of its 150 machine shops in only about three
Policymakers should note that Meadville's factory owners
are not asking Washington for cheaper workers and weaker environmental
regulations. Rather, they want China to raise its own environmental and labor
standards - as well as the Yuan's value.
But their future is rather
depressing. A recent Federal
Reserve Bank of New York study says that most manufacturing jobs lost in recent
years are gone forever. There will be no replay of the Japanese threat to
American industry, which reached its heights in the '70s and '80s. The problem
then was not sweatshop competition: The Japanese were simply making better
products using newer technology. Americans followed suit and
China's economic weapon is something else: an enormous
workforce toiling for fractions of an American's wage. When labor becomes a significant cost
in manufacturing, Americans are sure to lose out. Add to that the
Wal-Mart mentality - whereby discounters replace American suppliers with any
foreign sweatshop that can shave a few pennies off the price - and we have a
disaster in our industrial sector.
I've just read that the Ohio Art
Company is sending its Etch A Sketch operations to Shenzhen, China. A moment of
silence, please. Workers in Bryan, Ohio, made these drawing toys for 40 years.
Etch A Sketches have been a rite of passage for American children since most
baby boomers stopped crawling.
The move overseas has not
entirely surprised the 100 replaced workers. They've been training their Chinese
replacements to do their jobs.
It's hard to imagine an American
economy - or culture - that doesn't include making things. Many of us have come
to view possessions actually made in America by old-line American companies as
I hope that no one threw out my Etch A
Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears
regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is