There's a fine line between being skeptical and being downright cynical, and when it comes to the idea that the U.S. government will somehow solve all -- or even some -- of the manufacturing industry's problems, I guess you'll have to label me a cynical skeptic. While some political pundits are anticipating a whole new era in Washington now that the Democrats are back in charge of both Congressional houses, frankly I don't see much of anything happening in the next two years to change the basic situation for manufacturers. The supposedly pro-business Republicans accomplished next to nothing in recent years, and I foresee the Democrats following in that grand tradition.
In any event, now that the 110th Congress has officially convened, here's the way I see things going on the political scene for the next year or two:
- The new Congress will take a long and hard look at the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. However, beyond looking at the problems, Congress will do nothing to change the status quo. One manufacturing CEO, while attempting to explain why his company had to lay off thousands of workers, will claim it's the result of a corporate "lean human resources" initiative. Nobody will find that very funny.
- Fuel prices will continue to rise. For a while they'll seem to go down, but they'll stay at a higher level than where they used to be a couple years ago. The new Congress will attempt to blame the high prices on the oil companies, the oil companies will claim the demand exceeds the supply, and meanwhile China will continue to build more and more new cars for their growing middle class. There will be a lot of talk about "alternative energy," but nothing will emerge as a serious alternative to fossil fuels.
- A political action group on the U.S. West Coast will blame global warming on "every single manufacturer in the country," and at least one second-tier politician will sponsor a bill to have manufacturing declared a dangerous and illegal activity. Meanwhile, some members of Congress will propose a "global warming tax" to punish the largest consumers of fossil fuels.
At least one Rust Belt politician with aspirations for the White House will publicly rail against offshoring on the same day that a manufacturer in his or her home state announces plans to move its assembly base to Asia. The fact that it was the politician's own policies that caused the company to go offshore will go unreported.
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- Regulations governing the manufacture, transportation and disposal of goods will become so hopelessly confused that the government will consider creating a new agency, the Department of Regulatory Regulations, to ensure that all the agencies are in compliance with each other's standards.
- A major metropolitan newspaper will editorialize about "the death of manufacturing" in response to a government report that points to a steady decline in the number of production workers in the U.S. over the past decade. Coincidentally, the following week, that same newspaper will lay off 20% of its staff, prompting an Internet news site to run an item on "the death of major metropolitan newspapers."
- The United States and China will sign an historic trade agreement that promises to "level the playing field" for U.S. manufacturers. As a result of this agreement, absolutely nothing will change. Now that I think about it, though, when you consider how the government has "helped" manufacturers in the past, maybe another "do-nothing" Congress is the best we can hope for.
David Blanchard is IW's editor-in-chief. He is based in Cleveland. Also see Chain Reactions: David Blanchard's new blog about supply chain management.