Mike Rowe, Manufacturing, Walmart, and China

mike-rowe-why-is-college-so-expensiveLet’s play a little word association.

If I say “China” to a person who is involved in manufacturing or design in the US, the reaction generally isn’t positive. It’s not a political reaction, it’s the reaction of someone afraid that his livelihood is going to be exported.

If I say “Mike Rowe”, well, first my wife swoons a little bit, but after I’m done rolling my eyes, some people recognize “oh, yeah, the guy that swims in pig $#!+”. Right, that guy. But if you pay more attention, you know that Mike Rowe is also deeply involved in supporting American workers, specifically “hard work and…the skilled trades”, according to his mikeroweWORKS foundation. He’s also involved in promoting S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Manufacturing)** jobs and education, and that’s an area that includes almost everyone reading this blog. So Mike Rowe 718ae61c0c7a4fe6bdd04f1341dc8460is someone who has earned respect around engineering and manufacturing circles.

Next I say “Walmart”. Your reaction will likely be negative. People despise Walmart for various reasons. Around product design and manufacturing, we mostly recognize Walmart as the company that shamelessly destroyed American manufacturing, sent much more than just our jobs to China, and represents selling out for profits to the few and cheap crap to the many. In my previous job as a product design and development consultant, I saw first hand how ruthlessly Walmart dealt with inventors, marketers and distributors trying to get a new product on the market. For many inventors, it simply was not worth trying to sell at Walmart, because there was no profit left for anyone else. Further, Walmart is well known for squeezing their employees as hard as their vendors.

Many people associated with manufacturing in the US get downright angry talking about the boards of directors of American companies that have traded America’s future for a fat retirement pot for themselves and cheap crap for the rest of the country. If you’re motivated by environmental topics, US corporations by-passed all the regulation in the US to prevent massive industrial pollution by simply sending the pollution, along with our jobs and our money, to China. The results were shown to the world during the Beijing Olympics.

You may have seen an ad recently on TV, in fact during the Olympics. I didn’t really get it the first time it went by, because the punchline didn’t come until the end. But the second time, I recognized it as a change in direction, or at least a change in PR tactics. Have a look:

Just to boil it down for you a little, in case you haven’t heard all this yet, “Over the next 10 years, Walmart is investing $250 Billion in products that support American jobs.” And yes, the voice on that ad is Mike Rowe.

Mike Rowe, the poster boy for American jobs and manufacturing teams up with Walmart the anti-Christ of American jobs and manufacturing. It seems unthinkable until you remember that this is Walmart turning the corner a little bit. $250 billion over 10 years may not be that much for a company the size of Walmart, and what this campaign brings back to them in terms of good-will may over shadow that figure, but I think this can only be an improvement. Walmart is not claiming to turn toward American made products because it is the “right” thing to do, or even because it will help America (you, me, our friends, families, neighbors, customers, vendors) get back on our feet. I’m quite sure they don’t care about that stuff at all. They have worked for decades to stuff their pockets with the pennies they save by exporting your job, and destroying the environment in China, on their way to make every American into a shelf stocker, a greeter, or a consumer of cheap crap. No, they aren’t doing it for the right reasons, but regardless of their reasons, bringing back American made stuff can only help you, me, our friends, families, neighbors, customers, vendors – Americans.

Protectionism? Isolationism? “It’s one global economy”? Nope. You can make up all the dirty names you want, but at the end of the day, it’s about all those people listed above. I have an obligation to support those around me. I don’t wish any ill to the Chinese, but I have friends out of work. I’ve seen first hand how this works, and I know most of you have even more experience with it.

Mike Rowe may be in metaphorical rather than literal $#!+. Instead of wading through crap on Dirty Jobs, he’s taken on a different dirty job of dealing with the biggest purveyor of cheap crap in the world. At lot of people are calling Mike dirty names for making his deal with the devil. But I understand why he’s done it, and I support his choice.

I don’t begrudge companies the right to make a profit. I was in business for myself for several years, and understand that self-interest is not a bad thing. The desire for profit is what creates jobs in the first place. But self-interest in the absence of a certain respect for others is what has created this reputation that Walmart has as a loathsome corporate entity.

The cost of doing business in China has been rising for several years, especially when you consider the cost of donating your intellectual property to the Chinese public domain. Patent law, pollution and worker conditions are inviting the need for government regulation, and of course the ever increasing cost to ship goods from half the globe away. And this is before the complex discussion of managed currencies. It is these considerations that are swaying Walmart. Not altruism, or patriotism, or protectionism, or Mike’s idealistic belief in the work ethic. Even if Walmart starts selling more American goods, allowing all parties a reasonable profit, they will continue to be just slightly less loathsome.

Despite all this, I will support and encourage investment in American manufacturing from any source. Bringing back American manufacturing jobs is good for all of us. American business owners and workers pay taxes to stop incurring more US debt to China. Mike’s foundation is all about the benefits associated with real work, and getting this kind of boost certainly is worth the grief he’s catching.


***Oooooops. The M in STEM is “mathematics”, not “manufacturing”. Maybe it should have been “memory” ;o)

7 Replies to “Mike Rowe, Manufacturing, Walmart, and China”

  1. My questions for the lawyer and MBA CPA types who specialized in sending jobs overseas so they could make more money was who would buy their stuff when people quit earning money here to buy. Walmarts was and is still as far as I know a dirty minded company that has made a great living out of hammering vendors and when they ruin one move on to the next and repeat.

    Henry Ford invented modern manufacturing and his premise was that he wanted his workers to be able to afford what they were making. He did this two ways. First he improved the efficiency of manufacturing to a whole new level and then he paid his workers wages high enough to buy what they built.

    I remember under Sam Walton that Walmart really did make new jobs and buy American. After he died and the piranhas took over and his wife turned into a liberal idiot it was all down hill.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if they have come full circle and decide to do what Henry Ford did? They have the money to make a significant impact and if they want people to buy a lot of goods from them they have to start worrying about just how these goods are going to be paid for by their customers. We cannot be a world power nor a prosperous one without much more manufacturing on our shores than is now happening. I watch this with interest and hope this is not just some PR gambit by Wally World.

    There are other countries including most of Europe in worse shape than us. We have the ability and resources to do amazing things once we get the Socialists like Obama fired and free enterprise fired up again. Personally I think we have some rough times ahead while we relearn what we should have remembered all along but never count us down and out.

    1. Dave I don’t count you, all 300m of you, down and out. The immediate prospect for most in the US though is a substantially lower standard of living and for quite a long time. IMO though socialism, communism or other isms have little to do with the way things have ended up and it wont help to focus blame there.

  2. Thanks, Matt. I like that you haven’t glossed over the reasons everyone— suppliers, consumers, all of us— should be cautious about Wal-Mart, but also don’t write them off completely for their sins. I don’t expect Wal-Mart ever to do anything without regard to its bottom line, but I think condemning all of their actions from the get-go ignores the possible benefits to all of us from this initiative.

  3. An unusually gritty post. Signs that America isn’t so weak and corrupt after all? but perhaps all said and done its a rally about 5 years too late.
    From an outsiders perspective the trouble with this noble plan is that the US is quite, well, broke, that is there is no real money to invest in bringing back manufacturing, and even so your desired wages are too high to compete to secure a trade balance. There is no doubt though that Americans do have ability though. Realistically a large number of Americans can now only afford cheap goods from elsewhere and are dependant on some form of assistance. One way or another the US is going to have to face up to its debt rather than write bad checks and pass them around the world through the back channels. Although we are polite about it this does not impress us particularly as we know part of the plan is to extend and pretend at the expense of everyone else. I cant see how you can possibly move forward until some serious owning up takes place and this unfortunately means even more hardship. Reserve currency status has to go. Sadly the good will toward the US is running out and the day of reckoning will have to come one way or another. I will mention the US has also accumulated a fair bit of bad karma due to its foreign policy, and in fact is covertly involved in many crisis points in the world. I am not sure the world, if we need to make tough choices, really looks at the US as something to preserve or even revive. The internal problems are far too large and long term for the rest of the world to help with and ultimately we know, as it has been in the past, your advantage is our loss.

    1. Neil,
      I wrestled with the tone as I wrote this, because I really don’t want to drift off into political rants. But if current events cross paths with the core topics of this blog around design, engineering, and manufacturing, I won’t back off a little controversy. There are a lot of signs that manufacturing is coming back to the US.

      The US is a complicated place. It’s probably not fair to characterize us with a single adjective. We are a place with a lot of contradicting ideas.

      1. I was aware of that. Believe it or not I was actually trying to be helpful in pointing out some of the dynamic that may not be apparent to you from close up. Myself, I am somewhat disappointed by the character of the US, if you can attribute a whole nation a character. Perhaps I mean the inability to do anything to straighten out the situation. You need to be aware though the world is also a complex place and there will be those who will not be entirely unhappy to see the US bomb back to the stone age as it were. I mean this well but time is running out for the US to resolve its contradictions and do something constructive and I don’t think you can seriously expect to get back on the horse as if nothing happened.
        A lot of damage has been done, some of it may well be to all intents and purposes be permanent.

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