American Manufacturing Slowly Rotting Away: How Industries Die
By: Ian Fletcher
Feb 22, 2011
I wrote in a previous article about why America’s manufacturing sector, despite record output, is actually in very deep trouble: record output doesn’t prove the sector healthy when we are running a huge trade deficit in manufactured goods, i.e. consuming more goods than we produce and plugging the gap with asset sales and debt.
But this analysis of the problem only touches the quantitative surface of our ongoing industrial decline. Real industries are not abstract aggregates; they are complex ecosystems of suppliers and supply chains, skills and customer relationships, long-term investments and returns. Deindustrialization is thus a more complex process than is usually realized. It is not just layoffs and crumbling buildings; industries sicken and die in complicated ways.
To take just one example, when American producers are pushed out of foreign markets by protectionism abroad and out of domestic markets by the export subsidies of foreign nations, it is not just immediate profits that are lost. Declining sales undermine their scale economies, driving up their costs and making them even less competitive. Less profit means less money to plow into future technology development. Less access to sophisticated foreign markets means less exposure to sophisticated foreign technology and diverse foreign buyer needs.
When an industry shrinks, it ceases to support the complex web of skills, many of them outside the industry itself, upon which it depends. These skills often take years to master, so they only survive if the industry (and its supporting industries, several tiers deep into the supply chain) remain in continuous operation. The same goes for specialized suppliers. Thus, for example, in the words of the Financial Times’s James Kynge: