July 4th is the one day, more than any other, when we Americans celebrate what we have achieved as a nation. We have another holiday in November for giving thanks, but that day is mostly about family and faith, whereas July 4th is about the nation — about the founding of the world’s most durable democracy, and what it has meant for mankind. There is much about which we can rightfully feel proud. Freedom is more deeply rooted in America than any other place on the planet. We fought the worst war in our history to free the slaves, and then spent much of the following century fighting other wars in defense of freedom. Today, we don’t just tolerate diversity, we celebrate it. Our economy is the most affluent in the world, and our culture is the most imitated. Our scientists are the most accomplished, and our warfighters are the most professional.
But when I visit my family in New England this week to celebrate the 4th, there will be some other American achievers that I remember, with a tinge of sadness. I will remember my father, who grew up in Trenton, New Jersey during its heyday as a great manufacturing center. That’s when Trenton adopted the slogan, “Trenton Makes, the World Takes,” because it was a vital cog in the economy of the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods. My father earned a degree in electrical engineering, served in the Army during World War Two, and then came home to work for the Bell Telephone Company. He spent much of his time at Bell Labs, then the most fertile industrial research complex in the world.
I will also remember my Italian immigrant grandfather on my mother’s side of the family, who gathered up his new wife and meager possessions to leave the country of his birth forever, so he could make a better life working in the factories and mills of Massachusetts. Back then, Massachusetts was also a great manufacturing center, and when he wasn’t employed by one of the textile mills that had proliferated in his chosen destination of Plymouth, he worked in what was at the time the biggest rope factory in the world. Those jobs enabled him to raise six children to adulthood, all of whom in turn raised families of their own without violence or divorce.
I will remember those two remarkable men with sadness not just because they are long dead, but because the world that produced them — the world of Bell Telephone and the Plymouth Cordage Company — is also dead. America still hosts some of the biggest industrial companies in the world, but its economy is no longer dominated by manufacturing. It is ceding its role as a manufacturer to the rising industrial powers of Asia, and losing economic ground as a result. The CIA reported last year that, “in terms of size, speed, and directional flow, the global shift in relative wealth and economic power now under way — roughly from West to East — is without precedent in modern history.”
That shift is mainly about the loss of manufacturing to Asia, which saddled the U.S. with a merchandise trade deficit of $2 billion per day prior to the current recession. There isn’t much evidence that our leaders understand nations grow poorer when they run such deficits. Many of those leaders live as I do in Northern Virginia, where everyone who is anyone drives a foreign-nameplate car. When your twelve-year-old daughter tells you that “everything is made in China,” you know this isn’t the same country where your father and grandfather raised their families. People seem better off than they used to be, but now that the bills are coming due, we’ll see whether the world’s largest importer of manufactured goods remains a beacon for other nations.
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