Gene Dammon: The more things change

Published 10:59 am Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When I got out of active duty with the Marine Corps, jobs were very difficult to find, wages were low, and things were tough.  I worked many long days for one dollar an hour, and while we lived frugally, we got by.  I learned later that those lean times were a result of  the “Eisenhower Recession.”  But things got better, jobs opened up, and people started buying things again.

Contrast that with Fred’s story, from earlier in the 20th century:  Fred worked in the family business.  He had started out at the bottom, as a messenger boy, and gradually worked himself up to a position of responsibility in the family firm.  It wasn’t exactly his life’s ambition, working in this business, but he knew it was a unique opportunity for a young man.

About the time he became what we might now call a “Junior Executive,” business fell way off, sales were going south at an alarming rate, and he wondered if he had made a mistake investing his years in the family business.  He approached his father, Jacob, who had inherited the business from his father, and voiced his concerns.

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“Son,” his father said, putting his arm around his son’s shoulders, “there is such a thing as a “Business Cycle,” where periodically sales fall off.  Some people start to panic, and some companies go under.  Then the cycle changes direction, business increases, and the companies that weathered the storm are in a position to do very well, with fewer suppliers in the market, allowing us to raise prices.”

Jacob had a valid point.  There is a cycle of business, affecting individual companies and the national economy as well.  Assuming a level playing field and no basic changes in the general society, in industry and in technology, businesses can expect good times and bad, and can plan for the business cycle without fear and trepidation.

But then there are other times.  Times when the playing field has changed, and there is no recovery from the bottom of the curve of the business cycle.  Jacob’s company, which Fred hoped to take over soon as a going concern, was in the business of making tack, mostly buggy whips.  But Ford Motor Company had introduced a cheap, reliable motorcar to the American market, and orders for buggy whips went down and never recovered.  There had been a systemic change in the market and in the national economy as well.

This feels like one of those times.  There has been a mass exodus of manufacturing jobs from the U.S. to developing countries, like Mexico, Korea, China, and others, as corporations followed cheap labor and lax regulations of health and safety, as well as disregard of the damage their plants caused to the environment.

No one administration is to blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs �� it has taken place under both Democrats and Republicans.  More important than assigning blame is figuring out how to, “stop the bleeding, prevent shock, protect the wound.”  Jobs can’t be created out of thin air, and we don’t have any more discretionary funds to throw at joblessness.

I am an optimist by nature, but this situation presents a difficult challenge for America.  Not only are jobs – good paying jobs – harder and harder to find, we are failing in our responsibility to create the human capital necessary to be competitive on the international scene.  Despite the fact that we spend the second highest amount per student (K-12)  in the world, our high school graduates rank 21st out of 29 countries among  OECD countries.

American businesses, those that are still here, along with institutes of higher learning, spend $16.6 billion per year on remedial learning for students that still don’t have basic skills;  in other words, kids who can’t work a simple math problem or write a correct business letter.  Some of those businesses will tap the pool of foreign workers.

This downhill slide has been occurring for years.  There was no reason to expect Obama to be able to fix it in two years.  Nor, to expect the Republicans to do any better.

Gene Dammon of Port Neches is a contributing writer to the Port Arthur News. His e-mail address is: