“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
– H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)
BY KEN ROBERTSON
H.L. Mencken had it right, which is why he never got elected to anything.
This quote is timeless because human nature is also timeless. It changes slowly. Culture and behavioral norms can change, but our instinctive nature remains relatively constant. I have written several columns and will write several more. It is important to understand how and why our nation is in the position it is in today. Much of how we got to this place is attributable to our human nature. We need to recognize that, and factor it into our future approach and policy decisions.
(Note: When you write a column, your editor gives you a target word count. Mine is 750-1,000 words. After that, there is a chance the editor will start deleting sentences and words. I think they always delete the wrong ones so I must be deliberate and limit each column’s content. A short column must be “clear and simple.” Menken was right.)
I have been writing about how we came to be so dependent upon Chinese manufacturing. I looked at it from a personal point, and from a federal policy perspective. I don’t think anyone intended for our country to become so dependent upon a communist government for so many products critical to our health and our economy. Yet here we are.
In the world of politics, defining problems unites people. Defining solutions divides people. Politicians who talk about the bad consequences of flawed policy are usually cheered. When they start defining how to fix it, they are sneered, and their poll numbers always go down.
We know in our gut that our nation cannot go back into another full lockdown in the fall. We cannot again face shortages of medical protective equipment by relying upon a communist government that is telling its people and the world that the United States caused this global pandemic. If human nature got us to this point, how do we get out?
Let’s go back to the 1700s and early 1800s. Before long staple cotton fiber became abundant and affordable, clothing was made of wool and other fibers, which were at best uncomfortable and expensive. The invention of the cotton gin and the development of long staple cotton plants changed that. In the South, King Cotton became a cash crop because our long staple cotton fibers could be easily spun and processed into soft comfortable cloth. Slave labor made the production of the cotton affordable. Slavery was gone from Europe and was illegal in many states. Yet in Europe and in America, people bought and enjoyed the affordable comfortable clothing the cheap cotton provided. Many said they opposed slavery, but their purchases supported the very institution they abhorred. Does this sound familiar?
Can you imagine being a small farmer in 1859. You own no slaves, yet you must sell your cotton at competitive prices. You compete with the plantation owner who produced his cotton using slave labor. That small farmer made a lot less money. If he had employees to help, their wages were suppressed because they competed with slave labor competitors. The consumer at the store paid less for clothing, so they were happy. What about the slaves? Theirs was a miserable subsistence life of hard work. And that is an understatement.
We buy low cost products. Chinese workers lead a subsistence lifestyle. Good thing we are better than those people in 1859. Wait. Scratch that thought.
Now imagine if you opened a large plantation in 1859, and paid people good wages. Then you offered “slave free” cotton at much higher prices. Would you have stayed in business for long? No. That is why slavery survived until there was a catastrophic event — the Civil War. We are living through a catastrophic event. Thank God it is not a war.
When I shop at the big-box retailers and home improvement centers, or anyplace selling clothing, if I ask for non-Chinese made products, I don’t even have an option to buy American. They don’t give us that option because we have proven that we will say we support American industry, but the item we have with us in the check-out line is the cheap one manufactured by people earning subsistence wages. Welcome to the dilemma of American, European, and non-communist Asian countries now competing with China and Vietnam.
Human nature has not changed, and it won’t.
I do not hate the Chinese people, but they embraced communism and didn’t fight against it when they had the chance. There is no Second Amendment in China. The government owns the guns; the people do not. They will be subservient to their Communist Party masters until that leadership decides to change.
I do not wish to be an isolationist. Having trading partners gives American consumers good choices. I like Tequila made in Mexico, not in Mississippi. Japanese want Bourbon made in Kentucky, not Bolivia. I want to eat bananas grown in Honduras, not raised artificially in a greenhouse in Montana. It doesn’t bother me that my underwear is made in another country. Everything does not need to be made here, but some things do need to be made here. Our medicines need to be made here. Our medical supplies need to be made here.
The solution will divide us. Who gets to decide which products need to be made in the U.S.? If I make lawn chairs, guess what? I will argue that lawn chairs ought to be made in the U.S.? If politicians, who need campaign contributions to run for office, are the ones making those decisions, be prepared for checks to be written and a messy process that won’t work.
In the 1980s, our military was directed to reduce spending from Cold War levels to protracted peacetime levels. In 1983 the Grace Commission reported to President Reagan that there were reasonable cost-control measures that could be achieved by closing some military installations that are no longer vital to our national defense. Every time the Pentagon attempted to close redundant military facilities, the congressional delegations from the affected states howled in protest. The impacted congressmen joined together and defeated the cost-cutting proposals every time, although they were the same congressmen who demanded the military branches reduce their budgets. The solution was the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Act of 1990. A BRAC commission made a recommendation identifying which bases were to be closed. Congress could not amend the list. They had to accept or reject the list in an up or down vote. It was painful, but it worked.
There are no simple solutions. There are no easy solutions. There are no solutions that do not cause discomfort for somebody. If a snake oil salesman is peddling a simple, easy and painless solution, just remember, that H.L. Mencken was right.
Ken Robertson is an Iredell County commissioner.