Just In Time -- The United States of Manufacturing

Jan. 11, 2008
Proposed Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting the right of people peaceably to assemble, develop, manufacture and distribute products.

With 2008 being an election year, you're going to be hearing a lot about what the various political office-seekers will "do for you" if you'll vote them into office. Depending on the circumstances and the audience, some of them will summon up all the eloquence at their disposal to share with you "what's wrong with manufacturing," and how they plan to fix the industry... that is, of course, if you'll vote them into office.

My take on this whole process is that trying to figure out which candidate is the most manufacturing-friendly is a fool's errand. Whatever problems you think U.S. manufacturing has, there isn't a politician alive who can "fix" those problems.

Manufacturers and other for-profit companies often believe that government exists to help them make money, and they expect government to level the playing field whenever a competitor gains what looks to be an unfair advantage. However, there's absolutely nothing in the U.S. Constitution that comes anywhere close to delegating those responsibilities to any of the branches of government. In fact, the only time the Constitution mentions manufacturing at all is in the 18th Amendment, when an entire industry -- the manufacture and distribution of liquor -- was abolished (and of course, subsequently reinstated). While our elected officials have the power to legislate and regulate manufacturing, they have no power to develop products, automate processes, synchronize production or manage supply chains.

Otherwise sane and rational manufacturing executives sometimes seem genuinely perplexed as to why their elected officials aren't "doing more for manufacturers," when a much better question would be, "Haven't they already done it to you enough?" After all, the smartest politician in Washington knows less about manufacturing than the dumbest plant manager, so why would any manufacturer look to politicians for their salvation?

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See Chain Reactions: David Blanchard's blog about supply chain management.
And it's not just politicians who are out of the loop when it comes to familiarity with industrial concerns. According to John Byrd, president of the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT), "To the average American, manufacturing is an afterthought." If they think of it at all, they assume that U.S. manufacturing is "dying." Byrd admits there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that seems to indicate the industry is on life support, such as the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, or the fact that manufacturing today represents only 17% of the U.S. GDP. These are the same sound bytes that politicians will be trumpeting between now and November, but chances are you won't hear the rest of the story.

For instance, which candidate will be the one to tell you that manufacturing output in the United States today is at the highest level in history? Whose campaign will point out that automation has helped keep U.S. manufacturers not only competitive but the most productive in the world? And will anybody echo Byrd's observation that "we're the only major industrialized economy that taxes production rather than consumption," or that it's the high corporate tax rate in the U.S. that's largely to blame for any global disadvantage facing manufacturers? Will there be anybody willing to state on the record, "The best thing the government can do for manufacturers is to stay out of their way"? Doesn't seem likely.

It's time for manufacturers to take back control of their own industry. The politicians just don't know enough about the actual business of manufacturing to be able to offer any meaningful insights, and there's not much, if anything, they can do for you, other than spend a lot of your money and expect you to be grateful. When it comes to fixing manufacturing, though they may never come right out and say it, the politicians are leaving that job to you.

David Blanchard is IW's editor-in-chief. He is based in Cleveland. Also see Chain Reactions: David Blanchard's blog about supply chain management.

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