Willys built the jeeps that carried Ike’s armies across Europe. Ford built the Sherman tanks. Packard made the engines for JFK’s PT boat and for the P-40s of Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers. Studebaker built the Weasel armored personnel carrier. Chevrolet built the engines for the Flying Boxcar, Buick for the B-24 Liberator, Oldsmobile for the B-25 Mitchell Colonel “Jimmy” Doolittle flew in his “Thirty-Seconds-Over-Tokyo” raid in 1942.
Nash-Kelvinator built the Navy Corsair and Hudson the Helldiver that succeeded the Dauntless torpedo bomber that sank four Japanese carriers at Midway. But no company matched the contributions to victory of General Motors, the greatest company of them all.
Now most of those companies with the legendary names—Packard, Hudson, Studebaker, Nash, Oldsmobile—are gone. Of the Big Three that survive, Chrysler is German-owned, Ford and GM are bleeding, and their debt has fallen to junk-bond status. Delphi, the auto-parts supplier for GM, just declared bankruptcy.
Thanksgiving week, its share of the U.S. market down from 46 percent 30 years ago to 26 percent today, GM announced the closing of nine more American plants and the dismissal of 30,000 more workers.
Many reasons are given for the decline of the U.S. auto industry. The Volkswagen Beetle that invaded America in the late 1950s, the Toyotas and Hondas that followed, the Korean Kias coming in today, are, we are told, cheaper and more reliable and deliver better mileage. But there is a more basic reason for America’s industrial decline.
A sea change has taken place in the mindset of our elites. The economic patriotism of Hamilton and Clay, Lincoln and TR, and, yes, of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age who forged America into the mightiest industrial machine the world had ever seen, is dead.
To the economic patriots of the Old Republic, trade policy was designed to benefit the American worker first. They wanted American families to have the highest standard of living on earth and U.S. industry to be superior to that of any and all nations. If this meant favoring American manufacturers with privileged access to U.S. markets and keeping foreign goods out with high tariffs, so be it.
But that Hamiltonian America First vision that guided us for 150 years no longer informs our politics. Economic patriotism is dead.
For the Davos generation of leaders puts the Global Economy first. They are all good internationalists. If it’s good for the Global Economy, it must be good for America. Theirs is a quasi-religious faith in that same free-trade ideology for which Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, and TR had only spitting contempt.
And like Marxists who refuse to question their dogmas despite manifest signs of failure, our free traders believe that everything that is happening to America has to be happening for the best.
That U.S. manufacturing that once employed a third of our labor force now employs perhaps 10 percent does not matter. That the most self-sufficient nation in history that produced 96 percent of all that it consumed now depends on foreigners for a fourth of its steel, half its autos and machine tools, two-thirds of its textiles and apparel, most of its cameras, bicycles, motorcycles, shoes, TVs, videotape machines, radios, etc., does not matter.
That tens of thousands of foreign workers are brought in each year by U.S. employers to take high-tech jobs, that U.S. factories are shut down daily here while opening in China, that professional work is being outsourced to India, that we borrow $2 billion a day to finance consumption of foreign goods—none of this matters. The nation does not matter. The country does not matter. For we are all now in a Global Economy.
And so, as the jobs and skills of U.S. manufacturing workers disappear and the taxes they pay into Social Security, Medicare, and federal and state governments fall, and the cost of their pensions is passed on to taxpayers, and the government goes deeper into debt to cover rising social costs corporations used to carry, other countries quietly observe.
Fifty years ago, a trade deficit of 6 percent of GDP, a hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs, a growing dependence on foreign nations for the vital necessities of our national life, would have been taken as signs of the decline and fall of a great nation.
Our elites tell us that we have simply not read Thomas Friedman, we do not understand that the old Hobbesian world is history, that we have entered a new era of interdependence where democracy and free markets will flourish and usher us all into a golden age—and we Americans will lead the way.
If they are right, we are Cassandras. If they are wrong, they are fools who sold out the greatest country in all history for a mess of pottage.