April 03, 2008

Last week at NRO, cub reporter Stephen Spruiell announced that he had found what might be “the most deceptive ad” of the 2008 race, a Barack Obama spot blaming free trade for job losses at the Delphi plant in Warren, Ohio. According to Spruiell, the ad was deceptive because “foreign competition did not drive the company to eliminate American jobs” and “workers were offered … generous buyouts and early retirement packages.” Rather than blame foreign competition, Spruiell blamed Americans—specifically Americans belonging to labor unions—and held up as his bright, shining model Honda, which assembles cars in rural Ohio without any union. Spruiell also blamed another American, Steven Schuyler, the former Delphi employee featured in Obama’s ad, because he did not disclose in the ad that he, too, had received a buyout from Delphi and because he is “characterized by bitterness that things had to change, and rank dishonesty about why they did.” 

Instead, Spruiell feels that Schuyler should emulate former Delphi employee Karole Kowalski, who is using her $140,000 buyout from Delphi to get an associate’s degree and shows “a willingness to embrace the changes that are occurring in the U. S. economy and view them as opportunities.”  In itself, Spruiell’s piece is not extraordinary, but it does serve as a perfect illustration of the lies, half-truths, and Panglossian nonsense that characterizes the ideological free trader’s view of the world.

The deceptiveness begins with the way Spruiell presents laid off employees receiving $140,000 severance packages as somehow typical of “the changes occurring in the U. S. economy.” Most employees who are laid off when their plant is shut or jobs are slashed receive very small severance packages, if they receive any severance package at all.  And even though it is quite likely, as Spruiell claims, that Delphi’s labor contract helped make it uncompetitive,  it is certainly deceptive to blame the union for the job losses and never acknowledge that the union was also the reason Ms. Kowalski got $140,000 to continue her education when she was laid off.

Spruiell is also deceptive when he pretends free trade had nothing to do with the job losses at Delphi. He writes that “Delphi’s fate and the fate of its U. S. employees are tied to the fate of GM, which for multiple reasons has struggled, along with Ford and Chrysler, to stay afloat in recent years.”  Indeed. And high among those “multiple reasons” is the free-trade ideology Spruiell embraces. If America still had the high tariffs that characterized our economy during the days when Henry Ford built up Ford and Alfred Sloan built up GM, and when America became the manufacturing leader of the world, does he seriously think the American automakers would be struggling? And it is striking that even though adherents of the free-trade ideology must admit, when pressed, that free trade produces both winners and losers, any time the losers speak out against free trade the ideologues maintain that they didn’t really lose at all, and that they should be grateful to live in a Panglossian “best of all possible economic worlds,” just as Spruiell does with Schuyler. 

Indeed, a look at the facts backs up the “bitter” Steven Schuyler and shows that Spruiell is full of hot air when he absolves foreign competition of blame for what has happened in Warren and throughout industrial Ohio. On March 20, 2008, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a story, “Imports Savage Ohio,” pointing out that between 1997 and 2007, the U. S. market share held by imports dramatically increased for each of the seven sectors that comprise the heart of Ohio’s manufacturing base:  up 36.7% for motor vehicles and parts, up 64.7% for fabricated metals, up 28.9% for chemicals, up 52.5% for primary metal products, up 53.7% for food products, up 39.9% for machinery products, and up 61.3% for plastics and rubber products.  The era of NAFTA and GATT has not been a good one for manufacturing in Ohio, to put it mildly.

Spruiell’s adulation of Honda, and his implicit claim that losses among the Big Three can be made up by gains among Japanese plants in America, is equally deceptive.  I live 2-3 miles from Ford’s casting and engine plant in Brook Park, Ohio, a plant that employed, in its heyday, 15,000 people.  That is equal to all of Honda’s employment in Ohio, and roughly half the number Toyota employs in the U. S.  In comparison to what the Big Three used to do, the Japanese plants in America are mere Potemkin villages.  This point is brought home by what Spruiell refers to as GM’s “legacy costs.”  Once again, Spruiell’s villains are Americans, in this case the 1,000,000 retirees and dependents to whom GM is obligated to pay pension and health benefits.  If GM goes under, the federal government will no doubt end up paying some of these costs instead, but the ideological free trader is never bothered by the consequences of free trade.   What’s the permanent loss of a manufacturing base next to being able to get cheaper goods for a few years?

Of course, the reason the Japanese built plants here in the first place is because they feared a protectionist backlash.  Last summer, when Toyota indicated it did not plan to build any more plants here, the Wall Street Journal reported that Toyota had built its plants here “in part to build political support” and quoted an unnamed Toyota executive as saying, “It’s much, much more profitable to produce cars in Japan and ship them all to the U. S. right now, if it wasn’t for the political problems that might cause.”  Once all Americans are converted to Spruiell’s ideology, Toyota will be able to shutter its US plants and import all of its cars here without worry, since we will all be too busy “embracing the changes that are occurring in the U. S. economy and viewing them as opportunities” to care.   (One can only hope that if NRO replaces Spruiell with a less expensive reporter—or maybe outsources his reporting to India—that Spruiell will be true to his convictions, avoid “bitterness,” and embrace the change and view it as an opportunity.)

Spruiell’s fatuous optimism about people and places he knows nothing about is grating.  I have lived in Ohio almost my whole life, and I have spent most of my life outside Ohio in Michigan.  I know the sorts of jobs manufacturing used to give to my neighbors, and what impact the loss of those jobs has had.   And I know that many of those jobs have been lost because of the ideology Spruiell embraces, an ideology that encourages Americans to disdain their countrymen and adulate foreigners, to place economic considerations above loyalty to place or people, and that punishes people who are rooted and bound by love to the place of their birth and rewards those willing to leave behind family and friends to pursue the dollar wherever it may take them.  Spruiell may not be able to understand the “bitterness” a life long resident of a town feels about the local plant shutting down, but any true conservative should be able to understand that feeling.


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