A Concentration of Minds

It's interesting to watch an idea come of age. I've been covering manufacturing of one sort or another for more years than I'm usually prepared to admit to, and from the beginning, about once a year, someone would come up and say, "You know, you really oughta do a story on the decline of American manufacturing. The kids don't want to do this. The companies are moving everything overseas. What are we going to do when we don't make anything here anymore?"

And sometimes we'd actually write the story. But it never gained a lot of traction. Our collective mind was elsewhere. Now, just in the last few weeks (at least that's how it seems to me), I'm seeing more and more on this subject or aspects of it. Maybe it's just that my own consciousness has been raised, as we used to say in another context. But I don't think so. I think finally the story is getting legs.

This story appeared in my inbox this morning. A bipartisan (please don't laugh) group of 10 senators are sending a letter to President Obama urging him to organize the development of a National Manufacturing Policy.

Here's the text of the letter:

March 1, 2010
The President
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President,
The global economic crisis poses new challenges to American manufacturing.  The U.S. manufacturing sector is the world’s largest, but it will not remain so unless our nation acts, and acts now, to reverse its decline.  The loss of manufacturing plants and jobs has stifled economic opportunity for middle class families and compromised our ability to compete in the 21st century economy.  Indeed, for the last several decades, administrations have passed up critical opportunities to formulate a rational and comprehensive manufacturing policy.  Continued apathy will undermine our country’s ability to achieve energy independence and place our military readiness at risk.
We are convinced that the recovery and long-term health of our economy depend on a strong, competitive U.S. industrial manufacturing base.  Therefore we appreciate your release late last year of “A Framework for Revitalizing American Manufacturing.” The framework represents a thoughtful approach to recognizing manufacturing’s importance to the middle class, our energy security, and our national defense.
In particular, we agree with many of the basic strategies for reinvigorating U.S. manufacturing as outlined in Section III of the framework.  Developing a highly skilled and productive workforce, investing in new and emerging technologies, ensuring stable capital markets, providing support for communities in transition, strengthening infrastructure, improving market access for U.S. exports, and fostering entrepreneurial talent are all significant elements of an integrated policy strategy.
Without an adequate commitment of resources and coordination among every executive branch department, we are afraid that the tenets of this framework may not be appropriately fulfilled. We would therefore respectfully request additional information about how the Administration is putting these strategies to work, including specific goals, detailed initiatives supporting those goals, and performance measures to help ensure continuous progress.
We recognize that moving forward promptly to support manufacturing companies and workers can speed America’s recovery. Historically, the manufacturing sector has led the American economy out of recession. For instance, the auto industry contributed significantly to the economic recovery following the recession of the early 1980s.  Today we need a multi-industry strategy to propel job and economic growth, one that deploys federal resources and private-public partnerships to promote emerging manufacturing opportunities.
Today, nothing is more imperative than putting Americans back to work. We believe it will take a coordinated effort to assist America’s entrepreneurs, innovators, and workers by advancing policies that enhance U.S. manufacturing, increase U.S. competitiveness and export opportunities, and protect the quality of life for all Americans.  
We look forward to working with you to promote U.S. manufacturing on behalf of working families and the manufacturers who employ them, and in support of our nation’s continued global leadership.
Sherrod Brown                                   Lindsey Graham                     Christopher J. Dodd
United States Senator                         United States Senator             United States Senator
Olympia J. Snowe                               Debbie Stabenow                    Thad Cochran
United States Senator                         United States Senator             United States Senator
Jack Reed                                            Carl Levin                               Robert P. Casey
United States Senator                         United States Senator             United States Senator
Jeff Bingaman                                     Sheldon Whitehouse
United States Senator                         United States Senator

I don't know if anything will come of this. There are other folks beating on this drum. (More about that in future posts). Some big guns in academia and manufacturing are making noise. Rockwell CEO Keith Nosbusch wrote this op-ed piece for the Milwaukee Journal on Sunday. 

On the other hand, I also have some sympathy for the point of view of a colleague whose first reaction to the news was, "OMIGOD, not another policy committee!" 

Still, it's an issue to which attention must be paid. We've been too distracted by other things for too long, and those of us who care about American manufacturing have a dog in this fight, and we need to see to its welfare.

One way to start to wrap your head around the issue is to break down and get on Twitter. Then look to the lists #manufacturing, #mfg and #pauto. They will put you in touch with lots of serious folks promoting this story. You'll get more links to ideas than you can easily digest, but you'll also get a sense for what's happening out there.

It was the 18th-century writer and philosopher Samuel Johnson who observed, "Depend upon it, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

I think that fortnight may be here for American manufacturing, and it's time to start concentrating our minds.