08 October 2013

Larry from Oshkosh, WI  


It has been 53 years since President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address, when he famously warned Americans of the encroachments of the "military-industrial complex." Americans at the time were only a generation removed from World War II and the greatest military manufacturing and mobilization feat of all-time.

The linchpin of American success in this endeavor was the patriotic focus of nearly every business, corporation, and individual on the war effort. Assembly lines churned out more tanks than Fords, food and logistics supplies were massed and sent out in a scope never before seen in our hemisphere, and the might of American manufacturing proved to be the decisive force multiplier in beating back the scourge of Nazi domination.

Fifteen years after World War II, however, Eisenhower understood a different and growing reality--that manufacturing for the military could be a very profitable concept. Those businesses who could get a foothold through lobbying and appropriations would naturally try to block their competition out of the market, maximizing their own profit at the expense of diversification. Eisenhower saw the writing on thew all--a lack of competitors would shutter factories and erode the very manufacturing base at the heart of American military success.

In a unipolar or bipolar world--as we have been in for the past 70 years--we have been able to stomach this lack of competition and cementing of the military-industrial complex into our legislative norms. But as our economy slowly begins to feel the burden of decades of astronomical military spending, we are increasingly--and embarrassingly--vulnerable.

Larry is a defense contractor at a local firm in the military-friendly town of Oshkosh, WI. This is his fifth job, but it is the one he has held the longest in his life.

Larry is 54 years old. He left high school early to work in a local steel mill. After seven years there, the plant folded and Larry was out of work. Luckily, he knew one of the foremen at the local paper mill--the only other business in town--and was able to get a job there relatively quickly.

After only two months at the paper mill, the unthinkable happened:  the mill closed, Larry was out of work again, and the town slowly ceased to exist as anything more than a school district and some stoplights.

Larry moved a little further down the road and was able to find work after a few months sitting on his hands. He was now an operator for a small cement-mixing business. Larry admits that this was the only job he ever hated, and after six months there, he quit and looked for other work.

It took Larry another year to find a job, having to drive all the way to uproot his life to Oshkosh along the way. He found work at a fertilizer company, but as you can imagine, after a few years there--and on his 30th birthday--the company closed its doors, and Larry was again unemployed.

Along the way, he picked up a wife and two kids. After the fertilizer plant closed, Larry knew he was in a rough patch. Terry, his youngest boy, was about to start kindergarten, and Larry was not about to let one of his own have to stand in the "free lunch" line at school.

"Shame is a big motivator. If I couldn't imagine standing in line for a handout myself, it was ten times worse thinking about my boy doing it."

Though experienced in numerous blue-collar jobs, Larry took a significant pay and responsibility cut to work at the firm as a contractor, "to the tune of about fifteen-grand a year." He has worked there for nearly 24 years now, though, and his pay has rebounded nicely.

Larry is glad that he has work now, but something about the Russian-roulette nature of his career bothers him. "I look through my line of work, and I see industries that have evaporated along with me: steel, paper, cement, fertilizer. My buddies used to say I was bad luck, but it's more than that. It's a sign of the times. We don't make things anymore."

All across the country, men and women are using their hands to create fewer and fewer original products. There are fewer entrepreneurs, and a minority of them are starting business that create new things.

"Everybody is excited about the new high-paying jobs: high-tech, high-brow, high-everything. But it's not the high-paying jobs that are going to get people back to work. It's the low- and middle-paying jobs that are going to do the trick. And the only way to get those jobs back is to start making things again in this country."

Outsourcing is great for global trade, Larry allows, but not so great for a sovereign nation: "I think it's great that some Indian and Chinese guys are making our stuff--I mean, good for them, that's a paycheck. But that's money an American worker isn't getting. Providing cheap goods only goes so far--you've gotta be able to pay for the goods, you know?

A good economy is like a good car company. You want to be able to build the car yourself and be able to fix it when it gets broke. Today, all we can do is fix stuff--we can't build the car ourselves. It's like all we've got is tools and no car. I've heard about our 'service-oriented' economy and I think it all rings pretty hollow."

But this isn't the biggest threat for Larry: "Look at what we did during World War II. We had a manufacturing base and infrastructure that totally overwhelmed the world. When we needed a tank, it was out in hours. Today, this stuff takes us years. What if China or Russia or Iran decides to make a move on us? They are the ones that have our manufacturing base now. That's the game-changer. We'd be in serious trouble."

As Larry mentions, a disappearing manufacturing economy is a serious national security problem. Outsourcing, for all the wonders it does to foreign economies, is too often a tragedy for American workers. Companies that would rather ship their jobs overseas to avoid employing American men and women do a great disservice to our nation.

When we pledge allegiance to the profit margin and not the flag; when we argue that people should serve business and not the other way around; when we enter into agreements and sell our soul to the highest bidder without thinking of the long-term effects on Americans who work with their hands to make things, we are losing sight of the bigger picture. Our current economy is an existential threat to our Republic. We must do the hard work to bring our jobs back--a sacrifice that must be borne by business and workers.

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