In 1985, this country encountered something new: a trade deficit with China. It was just six million dollars. In 1994, President Bill Clinton ignored criticism from his own party to renew China’s Most Favored Nation trade status, citing the eight billion dollars’ worth of export business this country did with China. He tactfully failed to mention the thirty-nine billion dollars’ worth of goods we imported, for a net deficit of thirty billion dollars. And then we were off to the races, as government policies under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations made it a no-brainer for American companies to outsource their manufacturing and technical operations overseas. That deficit doubled, then doubled again, within the first ten years after Clinton’s decision. It peaked in 2018 at a staggering $418 billion before dropping to $345 billion in 2019. We are currently on track for a 2020 trade deficit of $279 billion, the lowest figure since 2009.
Last year, I tried like hell to build a “dirt jumper” bike without Chinese parts. I spent nearly five thousand dollars sourcing a frame from Ann Arbor, rims from Grand Rapids, titanium crank components from Florida, brakes from Japan. In a few cases, notably tires and tubes, I had no choice other than Taiwanese-sourced items. Taiwan is Chinese but it’s not Chinese, I suppose. The front fork, made by Fox, was largely Taiwanese thanks to the company’s recent decision to move all production to that island. Having painstakingly researched my way out of mainland China, I then built the bike… only to see “Made In China” on a wheel bearing.
The American Giant hooded sweatshirt, pictured above in the Black Camo limited edition I was too slow to buy in 2018, is entirely sourced in the United States. Every single part. But it’s a sweatshirt. If you get any more complex than that, you will find that Chinese manufacturing, like the COVID-19 virus, is impossible to completely avoid. Bicycles are not complex machines by any modern standard, but you can’t build one without buying from China. This should have worried all of us, but with the exception of yahoos like your humble author it did not. Our media told us to accept globalization as an inevitable thing, even as they told us we could help the climate of the entire planet by buying “sustainable” clothing that just happened to be made in China.
The cracks in this Tower of Babel are starting to show. Ironically, bicycles are leading the way.
You can’t get a decent kid’s bike right now for love or money. Factory closures in China and Taiwan happened to coincide with an unprecedented interest in stay-at-home exercise for children. (I have a way around this state of affairs for well-heeled readers, who should contact me directly if necessary, but it’s a very small and expensive loophole.) It didn’t take all that much to just turn off the supply of bicycles here. Last year, the idiots at Foreign Affairs finally woke up to the consequences of Chinese manufacturing omnipresence after years of unselfconscious bleating in praise of it. Even the dimmest bulbs in the C-suites are starting to reevaluate the idea of having everything designed, engineered, created, and assembled on the other side of a border that can become quite nonporous at a moment’s notice. It doesn’t help, of course, that China appears to be an infinite source of horrifying health issues and has been for a very long time.
Our country is currently embroiled in a sort of willful insanity regarding various statistical misunderstandings, deliberate obfuscations, and outright lies — but once we get done tearing ourselves into pieces over these idiocies we will need to seriously consider the virtues of returning a majority of production to our own shores. This is as true for pharmaceuticals as it is for circuit boards. It took thirty-five years to get here; we probably don’t have thirty-five years to undo the damage. Ironically, much of the perceived need for “social justice” in The Current Year is a direct result of President Clinton’s 1994 decision. It was the decline of manufacturing that hollowed-out economic prospects from Detroit to West Virginia. It was the ruthless outsourcing-at-any-cost that gutted what was supposed to be a durable tech-based middle class in this country. The people rioting in our streets right now are from those two groups more often than they are not. It’s much easier to join Antifa when you aren’t leaving a $150,000 engineering or tech job to do so, and it’s much easier to indulge in looting when you have no factory job or single-family home to lose in the process. Our economic choices have created an army of restless young people without any expectation of career or personal success. Every time that has happened in history, you have problems. What separates the America of 2020 from the Weimar Republic? Nothing but a certain level of faith in our money printers.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking about this as a Democrat vs. Republican issue. Bill Clinton was a Democrat, yes — but his own party leadership begged him not to do what he did. Presidents Bush and Obama were essentially identical in their capital-friendly, manufacturing-hostile policies over the course of sixteen long and horrifying years. The worker’s-party aspect of America’s left wing was co-opted by the social-justice crowd a long time ago, leading to the bizarre modern spectacle of union members going door to door in support of the policies that will render them irrelevant. Meanwhile, Republicans have largely abandoned small businesses in favor of megacorporations. There’s no salvation over the hill from either party.
Therefore, I will continue to ask my readers to make every possible effort to source and purchase American-made goods and services. Even if they are more expensive, even if they are more hassle, and even if they just plain are not as good. There’s more at stake here than whether or not you overpay for a plastic hamper or set of dress shoes. If enough consumers demonstrate a conscious interest in buying American, eventually there will be a compelling case to return more manufacturing to the United States. At which point, we can party like it’s 1984. Thanks for reading.