Scott P. Richert (“Bleeding Red, Feeling Blue,” The Rockford Files, January) refers to the loss of “higher-paying manufacturing positions with decent benefits” in Ohio and the Midwest generally, blaming the Bush administration and greedy multinational corporations.

I am no fan of the Bush administration.  However, Mr. Bush is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  He did raise tariffs on steel, to “protect” the steel industry in Ohio, which is the sort of thing Mr. Richert seems to want for other manufacturing industries.  The inevitable result was loss of jobs in steel-using industries.  However, if President Bush hadn’t raised steel tariffs, he would have been condemned for steel-industry job losses, instead of for job losses elsewhere.

The loss of “good” manufacturing jobs in the Midwest has deep roots.  Those jobs were “too good.”  The pay and benefits were not economically justified.  Auto, steel, and rubber unions extorted those wages from employers, with the help of the pro-union federal government.  It is no surprise that autos, steel, and rubber are the industries in deepest trouble.  Workers making $10 per hour cannot afford to buy things made by workers getting $20 per hour unless the latter are twice as productive.  In autos, steel, and rubber, they weren’t.  The auto industry particularly was notorious for malingering and featherbedding.  A case in point: One of my colleagues told me that, while in college, he and another engineering student got summer jobs in a Detroit auto plant.  They were assigned to an operation that was supposed to require two workers.  They found that only one worker was really needed, so they agreed to split the day.  While one worked, the other would study the plant, then they would switch.  Shortly, they were called aside by the union shop steward, who told them, “You guys are going to kill a job.”

The unions could get away with unjustified pay levels when the rest of the world was flat on its back after World War II.  Americans had to “buy American” because there was nothing else.  Once international trade picked up, the end was in sight.  Americans realized that autos from Detroit were more expensive and less reliable than autos from Japan and Germany.  They started buying them and still do.

However, the problem goes well beyond the unjustified wages extorted by manufacturing unions.  These unions also supported radical leftist politicians.  In Ohio, former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum and former Gov. Richard Celeste come to mind.  High business taxes, overly generous Workmen’s Compensation, and other antibusiness measures all helped turn the Midwest into the Rust Belt.

“Protecting” Midwest manufacturing industries by excluding foreign goods is not the answer.  That only lowers the standard of living of all Americans.  If people in the Midwest really want manufacturing industries to thrive here, a business-friendly climate is needed.  Lower taxes, reasonable environmental regulations, and an end to the antibusiness attitude of union leaders are needed.  Workers have to recognize that “good” wages need to be earned; they are not an entitlement.  Also, our future workers are growing up illiterate and innumerate by comparison with competitors in foreign countries.  Japanese workers do their own statistical analyses of manufacturing quality.  Many American high-school graduates cannot balance a checkbook.  Our students need to be able to read, write, and cipher.

It’s time to quit whining about “losing good jobs.”  Instead, we should realize that we, as a nation, cannot consume more than we produce.  If we want a higher standard of living, the only answer is higher productivity.  That requires capital investment and highly trained workers.  Anything that works against those also works against “good jobs.”

        —Joseph P. Martino
Sidney, OH

Mr. Richert Replies:

Mr. Martino makes a number of good points.  These are, in fact, the arguments that I grew up with in an anti-union family in West Michigan in the 1970’s and 80’s.  They are true as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough.

For my family in Michigan or Mr. Martino in Ohio, the auto-industry example always springs to mind.  But it simply doesn’t apply to much of the manufacturing base of the industrial Midwest.  The small manufacturers in Rockford who supplied those good jobs that are now disappearing were not, for the most part, dealing with unions.  And even in the auto industry, the impact of unions today is almost negligible.  Union membership continues to decline, and the unions couldn’t even keep GM in Flint.  NAFTA turned out to be the greatest piece of union-busting legislation ever passed.  That’s not to say, however, that it was the same in its effects as “right-to-work” legislation—at least not for American workers.

I don’t want to dwell on the American auto industry, because those were not the jobs I was talking about in my column, but Mr. Martino should consider this question: If the problems experienced by Ford, GM, and Chrysler stemmed primarily from American autoworkers making too much money, why is the average sales price today (approximately $26,000) for a car higher after ten years of NAFTA, when much of the Big Three’s production has been shifted south of the border or overseas?  Shouldn’t consumers be seeing significantly lower prices?

Mr. Martino paints me as a protectionist, but that’s true only if you define a protectionist as someone who realizes that free trade is an ideal that never has existed—and never will.  (By the way, I did not propose any tariffs, and the only tariff I mentioned was one I criticized.)  When every other major industrialized country imposes border-adjusted value-added taxes that are functionally the same as tariffs on American goods imported into those countries, does that count as “free trade”?  The WTO and the Bush administration say that it does.  I beg to differ.