Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

An Ahem Moment

with 10 comments

Okay, I’ll admit it.

I expected that last comment thread to go on much longer than it did, and to generate a lot more heat.

But since it didn’t, I’d like to ask a question.

If you read that article Michael Fisher posted–the one on working in the US and in China–what did you get out of it?

My tendency was to go, “well, if they Chinese workers are more flexible, better trained and more self disciplined than the American workers are, the Chinese workers deserve to win.”

This seems to me so obvious, that I have a hard time figuring out what else I’m supposed to think, or what it is I’m supposed to support doing to change things.

The American engineer highlighted in the article doesn’t want to work the way a Chinese worker works.  He wants week ends and vacations and time with his family and all the rest of it, and that’s going to be fine as long as somebody does not come along who is willing to forgo those things for the sake of beating out the competition.

We certainly can’t stop the Chinese from working the way they do, so what exactly was I supposed to take away from that piece?


Just asking.

Written by janeh

January 25th, 2012 at 11:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'An Ahem Moment'

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  1. My reeaction was based on being in grade school in the 1940s and high school in the early 50s. At that time, I was taught that the US was self sufficient. Oil can from Texas and California, copper from Montana, iron ore from Michigan and Minnesota. And there was no competition from Europe or Asia.

    Those statements are no longer true but the US hasn’t adapted to competition.

    This article from Victor Davis Hanson makes much the same point.



    25 Jan 12 at 3:53 pm

  2. OK, you got me to follow the link. (I do NOT follow links made with little or no coment or explanation. If the other fellow won’t invest, why should I?)

    I think the implied notion is that no one should be allowed to work harder and longer than an American does, and if they do we ought not to buy from them. It’s sort of like the French notion of “uniform” or “standardized” tax and social welfare programs, where somehow current French practice turns out to be the template. But even the Times doesn’t dare say that out loud–yet.

    There was no discussion of making the United States–or American workers–more productive.

    Unless the takeaway was that when you’re (a liberal Democratic) President, you can be rude to your guests without comment? Or wasn’t I supposed to notice that?


    25 Jan 12 at 4:32 pm

  3. Robert, I don’t think it’s a question of making American workers more productive, or at least not entirely. That is part of it – I haven’t been in a Chinese manufacturing plant but I’ve been in several in Mexico and I’ve seen American workers doing the same job as the Mexicans and honestly, there’s a huge difference.

    But even assuming equal skill and equal productivity there’s no way an American worker can live on what the Chinese worker can. Burdened shop rates where I am (Minnesota) tend to be around $20/hr for unskilled workers. In China it’s about .50/hr.

    Eventually there will be less of a difference. The going wage in Mexico has gone up in the border states since the maquiladoras became a big deal (mostly post-NAFTA). This is a common pattern in developing nations – over time the additional employment and competition for workers drives wages up. Mexico’s still cheaper than the US but a lot of companies are going to Peru and Vietnam and Jordan. Over time China and Peru will end up with increased wages too, unless there are other factors acting.


    25 Jan 12 at 8:07 pm

  4. I read the article Mike quoted and was waiting for him to follow up. My reaction was basically the same as yours, Jane.

    Basically, I think that we all (in the developed west) need to understand that nobody anywhere else owes us anything, least of all the working classes in the Third World. These people, particularly in Asia, are only now reaching the same point that we, in the west, reached initially in the Industrial Revolution (for the UK) and somewhat later in the US, Australia and the rest of the Anglosphere, when the preponderance of agricultural workers deserted, or were dismissed from, the farms and went to the cities taking menial jobs in the burgeoning manufacturing industries. Even illiterate lower-brow people would have got this message from Charlie Pride’s lament “Detroit City”.

    I doubt if there are even any short-term solutions whilever the political classes compete against each other with short-sighted populist nostrums like Obama’s blatantly cynical and almost certainly impracticable “tax the rich till the pips squeak”, and the conservative equivalents whatever they might be if the Republicans ever get their act together. The best bet going anywhere is that, even ignoring places like Indonesia and the rest of SE Asia, China and India alone will very quickly reduce the US and the rest of the west to economic smoking ruins unless and until we shift our expectations of what is an appropriate standard of living dramatically DOWNWARDS towards their standards.

    Fuffing about with tens of millions of naive people worrying about “global warming” and wasting enormous amounts of time, money and resources while, at the same time, bemoaning the loss of high-tech manufacturing industries to countries like India and China who couldn’t give too hoots about the “environment”. For us to criticise them is doubly ironic given that it they who have better national senses of proportion and more realistic priorities born of living much, much closer to nature all red in tooth and claw than any of our countries have done in several generations.

    Briefly stated, it’s time for us all to get up off our bellies and walk.


    25 Jan 12 at 8:42 pm

  5. Productiity. Yeah, some wage differences can’t be overcome. But if US students had better technical backgrounds, it would make a difference. So would clearer and simpler laws. less corruption, higher capital investment, ease of transportation and so forth. If it were just a matter of the going rate for unskilled labor, ALL the jobs would be in Yucatan or Hati. The article treated the novement of industry to China as it would a tsumani–a natural force, not the result of human choices, nor anything political choices might mitigate.


    25 Jan 12 at 9:35 pm

  6. “The article treated the novement of industry to China as it would a tsumani–a natural force, not the result of human choices, nor anything political choices might mitigate.”

    And that’s pretty much in a nutshell the reality of our present situations.


    25 Jan 12 at 10:03 pm

  7. No, it’s the result of choices, but as Robert notes, there’s more to the equation than cheap labor. In some industries where was a tsunami of movement from the US and Mexico to China, and now lots of them are moving back, due to quality issues, freight costs, and the lack of intellectual property protection.


    26 Jan 12 at 1:35 pm

  8. I say again–and in more detail–choices.

    Political choices: China had abundant cheap labor under Mao, and they were being outproduced by Taiwan until Deng gave the mainland Chinese back property rights–to buy and sell property, to hire and fire workers and so forth. India lags China to this day because India had the “License Raj” and still hasn’t altogether abandoned it. Japan Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore don’t have material edges over Malaysia, Indonesia or North Korea. They have made different political choices.

    Individual choices: When our math and science classes fill with foreigners, I don’t blame the education system. They’re providing the opportunity, but too many young people graduate with a degree in Sociology–MUCH less homework–then complain that it’s “unfair” the Engineering major has a bigger paycheck–or when the work follows those engineers back to their home country. Study successful start-up businesses in the United States, and you’ll find bosses working hours the hired help wouldn’t, and start-up capital from mortgaged homes and forgone vacations. The politicians then sa the businessmen were “fortunate.” Bad choices pay off too. I’ve no doubt some banks engaged in shady practices during the housing boom–but those sleazy bankers were far outnumbered by individuals who took out second and third mortgages to pay for vacations–and then got “unlucky.” I can also name towns in which American workers pretty much chased businesses out, expecting more money for less work every year and stealing from their employers in the bargain. Those companies didn’t leave the US–but they left those towns, and they’re not coming back.

    I do not deny that there are rich people who are simply crooked, lucky or both, nor that there are poor people who’ve worked hard, lived frugally and had a terrible run of luck. But over the course of a lifetime, choices tend to outweigh luck. Even if they didn’t, choices are still a factor. Treating the movement of industries as though they were tornadoes doesn’t advance the debate.

    Unless you think the Swiss got rich on their abundant natural resources?


    26 Jan 12 at 4:48 pm

  9. The point that I was mainly agreeing with is that there is little or nothing that political choices might mitigate. Perhaps I should have said that in our political reality, it’s unlikely that we will make the political choices necessary to mitigate our problems until it is way too late.


    26 Jan 12 at 4:54 pm

  10. Charlou was right.


    26 Jan 12 at 8:46 pm

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