Thursday, January 15, 2009

Change: Then and Now

There used to be a mantra that stated "what's good for General Motors is good for America".

My how things have changed in my life time. But then change is what its all about - change is good - or so they say. My dear Grandma was 98 years old when she died in the early 1990's. If we think about what life was like in the 1890's when she was born we'd have to say change was good! Back then indoor plumbing, telephones and electricity were the exception for most people in the western world. Cars were rare and airplanes didn't exist. No radio, no TV, no air conditioning - none of the modern conveniences that were taken for granted by the 1950's.

Born in 1961 I am approaching my 50th year on this Earth. While many things have changed since Kennedy was the President I don't think daily life is as different for me now as it was for my Grandma in the 1950's compared to her childhood years. I get up to the alarm clock, make toast in the toaster, take a hot shower, get in my car and commute to my job, go home at 5PM have dinner and maybe watch a little TV or read a book before bed. Not really that much different than the generation that preceded me. Try to imagine life for the generation that preceded my Grandma...

Many believe that change is "quickening". Yet, the daily routine of millions in the western world has really not changed all that much in the past 40 or 50 years. Instead of punching a clock at the factory and putting in 8 to 10 hours of back breaking work we sit at computers (sit and sit and sit) and ply our brains on difficult tasks that make us just as tired at the end of the day. For many doing mindless assembly on the production line is not really all that different from rote numbers crunching or code writing. Our modern work may not hash our bodies like the work of the past generation, but it can and does hash our spirit.

What worries a lot of us, and we don't know exactly why, is the sense that we as a society don't build or make things anymore. While this is not entirely true we can sense that the work and workers who built the society we inherited are going away and with it a huge part of who and what we are. There is just something disconcerting about it, especially in light of the condition of the American auto companies in the year 2009.

Look at the chart below. The two tables compare the top 10 American businesses in 1960 and 2008.

In 1960 the Big Three auto companies were represented. By 2008 only Ford is still there. Ford, like GM and Chrysler is waning and will be looking to the government for help. None of the steel companies are listed in 2008. The steel industry is a shell of its former self even after years of government protection via import tariffs. The oil companies have merged with each other and and still dominate the list, Exxon with Mobil, Connoco with Phillips. Texaco and Gulf are now part of Chevron. Here again, the energy companies have all benefited from government largess in the form of massive tax breaks. Financial companies now take up where steel has faltered. However, the financial system is in major trouble and has taken billions upon billions in government money (a government that has none) just to prevent a catastrophic collapse. General Electric appears to be holding it's own, but upon examination one finds billions in sales to the government and the military.

Then there's Walmart...

What can you say about Walmart? It is genuine American success story. However, I view Walmart as Cain and Able, God and the devil, sweet nectar and poison. Walmart has revolutionized retail and has introduced many processes into the procurement, inventory and distribution (among others) of product that creates efficiencies never before seen in any business anywhere. Their famous low prices also allow low income folks to afford more. This is good. What is less good - or evil - if you will, is the destruction of American manufacturing as Walmart forces factories pull up stakes for China. The mere presence of Walmart nearby sees the Mom and Pop shops on Main St. close their doors. You can argue that union wages in those factories is inefficient and unsustainable. You can point out that Mom and Pop stores are charging too much for too little. You might as well say small town America is worthless. For Walmart there is no happy medium. Who, you might ask, is paying the price for the displaced who can't make the trip to China with their job? The government.

You might be inclined to think that government is the savior based on these facts. You'd be wrong. In many cases government meddling has caused the problems. Taxes that are too high on business big and small, over regulation in some cases, under regulation in others. There are insane laws and tax codes that reward companies for taking jobs overseas. Many of our politicans set themselves up for a sweet life after they have help ruin the lives of others through terrible and destructive legislation. The real change is that they have no shame about it as they poke us in the eye these days.

What is to become of America? Can we "change" and still be a rich and proud nation? Can we?



Eshenberg said...

Did the Romans of 5 century could be the same as they were in 1'st century ? No,because they were not the same people!
Good Bye,last great Indo-European civilization ;)