Making Comes Before Greatness

What if we’ve been misunderstanding Donald Trump’s campaign slogan and what it means to his supporters? We’ve focused on “great” because we’ve become an adjectival people. We lack substance and avoid movement. Nouns and verbs require more commitment than a few selected superlatives.

We’ve wondered aloud when we last were great, how we lost our greatness, and how we’ll know when we’ve gotten it back. We also worry whether the guy in charge can give us more than a red hat, but maybe that’s selling him and his slogan short.

Maybe “Make America Great Again” and its almost-quaint precursor “Made in America” is less about jobs and income and more about pride and self-reliance. “Making” is maybe what matters most.

If America had more makers, according to the formula, there’d be fewer takers. But making what? That’s what we don’t know. To hear the president-elect’s trumpeted claims, there will be a few more cars made in North Carolina and a few more air conditioners made in Indiana. But that’s not a national strategy, as even his supporters admit.

It’s also not a solution that matches the problem. As many have pointed out, manufacturing jobs are being lost faster to automation than to offshoring. I grew up believing only the rich could buy boneless chicken breasts. We can thank some clever machinery for changing that.

Work will use more machines and fewer people and there’s nothing we can do about it. Once 3D printers become as common as microwaves, we’ll be making things at home that we always needed a manufacturer to do for us. That revolution is still a ways away, but there’s no doubt it’s coming — and probably sooner than most people think.

Manufacturing jobs created the middle class in America, but even if we can lure some of those jobs back, they won’t be staying for long. Our only hope in the long run is to invent more things for more people to do, and to give them the training to do them.

Making things gives people a deep sense of satisfaction. The roots of satisfaction push upward into stems of confidence, which can then flower into ambition. History has shown when Americans become ambitious, greatness takes care of itself.

So how can this or any other president get more Americans making more things? President Obama reportedly asked Apple’s Steve Jobs exactly that. The president got a rebuke more than an answer: “Those jobs are not coming back!”

Corporations have been unwilling to bring their profits back to America, much less their manufacturing jobs. Economic pressures to use inexpensive labor are simply too great for any political force to counteract. Faced with that reality, Trump has threatened tariffs and other penalties against companies that refuse his overtures.

Economists of every stripe warn that any trade war could collapse the world economy and spare no nation, including ours. But what if there were a way to entice manufacturers without bribing or threatening to punish them? We may have an opportunity here that no one could have predicted, using Trump’s unique skills.

Trump claims to have built many significant structures that are instantly recognizable around the world. In fact, his foremost achievement has been just one thing that he has undeniably built — his brand.

If our brander-in-chief made it one of his chief economic goals, he could revive “Made in America” and buy us the time to do what his slogan promised, without a trade war or corporate arm-twisting.

Rather than asking Apple to make their iPhones in America, Trump could ask that they make some of their iPhones here, but with two significant differences. The locally made phones would have an American flag embossed into the case, and the price would reflect its higher labor costs.

The challenge then would be on President Trump to convince Americans that the extra cost of locally sourced goods is worth the prestige that the consumer’s choice carries. Luxury brands have been built on less, and successfully so.

Will Americans pay more to keep their neighbors employed? If not, at least we will have learned that lesson.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs here.