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Last week I wrote about how the Trump administration, spurred by Senator Marco Rubio, has begun to organize an industrial policy, which is to say government officials financing specific industries explicitly and directly. There’s a lot to say about industrial policy both positive and negative, and I will be saying a lot more.
But today I’m going to make a very simple point about the main political problem in America, and across the West. We don’t value making things, and so increasingly we’ve lost the ability to make things.
A few months ago, I was reading complaints about Trump tariffs filed with the United States Trade Representative’s office, and I found a whole host of industry lobbyists arguing that tariffs were bad because America can’t actually do anything anymore. I wrote about this last year.
The list of products and commodities companies say they can no longer make in America is long. Nylon products, optical scanners, consumer robotics, electronics, all types of clothing, specialty chemicals…
And the arguments were always the same, which is that we can’t do things in the U.S., and if we try, consumer prices will go up and prevent Americans from getting the [insert important thing] they depend on. The head of the American Bridal & Prom Industry Association said, “we can't make wedding gowns and prom dresses in the United States.” The entire labor force for doing so, and even things like beads for hand-sown adjustments, are now in China. “It’s impossible… We can't even get the materials in this country to make this clothing.”
As I noted, “from prom dresses to point of sale terminals, the argument from American distributors is pretty much always the same. The ecosystem of production doesn’t exist in the U.S. anymore and it would be too expensive to bring it back.”
I went over the hearings again, and found an even better complaint. This one was from Stan Jantz from the bible lobby. I don’t mean he’s got some religious agenda, I mean he represents the Evangelical Publisher's Association, which sells religious texts.
These publishers wanted to avoid bibles being subjected to tariffs. Here’s Jantz:
Chinese printers have developed the technology and the artistry to produce the kinds of bibles people want which is why over 50 percent of the bibles published by ECPA members are printed in China. In fact, more bibles are printed in China than any other country on earth.
This isn’t some high tech industry, it’s printing books. It is literally the oldest mass production industry in history, with bible printing dating from the 15th century. And yet, here’s more of what Jantz had to say:
While there are some domestic printing options available, the U.S. printers, as has been remarked already, that are comparable to China on price and quality do not have the capacity to meet current demand….
The people who buy and read the bible would potentially have to pay a much higher price, perhaps higher than they could justify. Christians depend on the bible for their daily input of spiritual nourishment… Some publishers believe such a tariff would place a practical limitation on religious freedom.
A dramatic increase in the price of the bible, not to mention books that help people better understand the bible, would deter average Americans from getting the guidance and spiritual connectivity they depend on.
Now of course, the Chinese government is cracking down on the 60 million Christians inside China, with party plans of “retranslating and annotating” the Bible to establish a “correct understanding” of the text. It’s not as well-known as the concentration camps set up for Muslim Uighurs, but it’s quite likely that Chinese Christians are not getting what Jantz calls their “daily input of spiritual nourishment.”
But the point here is not about religious freedom, but about whether we as a society value the ability to produce things. We certainly used to. We could make fantastic airplanes and invent a host of wonderful technologically sophisticated products to improve our lives. And yet today, our book distributors tell us we can’t even print books. There are a lot of reason for that, but the main one is that we have elevated the rights of financiers over the rights of workers, engineers, farmers, artists and businesspeople.
And this is a crisis. Bibles and prom dresses don’t matter so much, but a few months ago, the head of acquisitions for the Air Force, William Roper, noted that the U.S. had to depend on only two prime contractor makers of fighter jets, down from 13 in the 1950s. Our anti-production philosophy is so profoundly embedded that Roper framed his hope for solving this problem with the following comment.
"I don't think we'll have like a new prime, but maybe a company that's founded by a bored billionaire who just wants to build cool airplanes, just because."
I am skeptical of the Trump administration’s industrial policy approach. But I respect the that important policymakers have noticed we have lost the ability to make things.
Thanks for reading. And if you liked this essay, you can sign up here for more issues of BIG, a newsletter on how to restore fair commerce, innovation and democracy. If you want to really understand the secret history of monopoly power, read my book, Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.
P.S. I got this note awhile back and meant to publish it. So here goes. Also if you have thoughts, send them my way, I sometimes publish letters from readers (without your name attached of course).
As an American who is living in economic exile in China, I really appreciate what you are writing about China. For the last few years, I have had conversations like this with friends back home, who didn’t fully seem to understand how dangerous China is.
I wanted to share with you a personal anecdote about just how good the Chinese propaganda machine is.
A couple of years ago, when I lived in Beijing, a friend and I were out very late at a bar. We start chatting in English with a young Chinese woman, and Taiwan comes up. -My friend, is an American guy who speaks fluent Mandarin and knows Chinese history like it is the back of his hand.-. We tell her that most of the Western world is not really behind China on the whole Taiwan thing, is she started crying. Like legit, full on tears. My friend is able to prove to her that he really knows Chinese history as well, so we aren’t just a couple of no-nothing white guys (China is filled with 0 to hero foreigners). She was genuinely shocked, that the world isn’t 100% behind China on Taiwan, that there is another side to this issue.
Many Chinese people take their national identity personally in a way I can’t really understand. It has created a population of people who have both a victim complex and a superiority complex. Many perceive an attack on China to be a personal attack on them.
I really appreciate what you are writing. China is the number 1 issue in the world today. As China sells its surveillance tech to other non-Democratic states, the threat only increases. One of the key ways of fighting China, is to heal our liberal democracy. Live up to our values.
P.P.S. This is Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press. He is judging us.