“I want a “smart refrigerator,” Daddy.”
My 10-year-old Anna made that pronouncement as we stood in front of a row of 20 refrigerators last week at a Springfield appliance store.
The salesman said, “Wouldn’t you like to see some of our Maytag models?”
I gave him a look like I generally reserve for the dog when he soils the floor and said, “I’m from Galesburg. What do you think?”
Seventeen years ago, Maytag announced that it would close its refrigerator factory in my hometown and move the jobs to Mexico. Sixteen hundred men and women lost their jobs. Many of those hitting the streets were high school classmates of mine.
When I drive by that factory’s empty parking lots, I still become angry.
The narrative you’ll hear from many folks is that two things are to blame for the loss of those jobs: The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and greedy corporate executives who put profit over people.
Both may be true. But there is another party even more to blame: U.S. consumers.
As my family stood in the appliance store, the salesman walked us to a “smart refrigerator” with a computer tablet embedded in the door. He explained how we could write our shopping list on the tablet and email it to our cell phones. He showed us the cameras inside the icebox that would allow shoppers to use their phones to look inside their fridge to see if they’re out of an item while they are still shopping.
My daughter, Anna, was smitten. Me, not so much.
I asked, “Where is this made?”
The salesman shifted from one foot to another and said, “South Korea.”
After a long pause, he asked, “What features are you looking for?”
I replied, “One made in the USA.”
He was a bit flummoxed. It was obvious that not many people made that request. He hurried down the row opening refrigerator door after refrigerator door to see if he could find a domestic-made unit.
We settled on a nice General Electric model made in Louisville, Ky.
My wife asked, why that one? I replied, I think I would be betraying my hometown if I bought something made in another country.
But, of course, just asking for American-made products isn’t going to solve the manufacturing problem in this country.
President Donald Trump’s “solution” has been to enter into a trade war with China, Canada, Europe, Mexico and smaller Asian countries.
We put tariffs on their goods and they put them on ours. Antagonizing our trading partners isn’t a recipe for prosperity.
So, what are the alternatives?
On Monday, I chatted with U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, about alternative strategies for developing more manufacturing jobs.
Here are some of her common-sense solutions:
• Get high schools and community colleges to partner with local manufacturers to provide job-ready graduates in the communities where the factories are located.
• Help small and medium-size businesses by providing technical and legal resources enabling them to export their products.
• Improve roads, railroads, locks, dams and bridges to help manufacturers receive raw materials and ship finished products.
Some of the solutions are already in progress such as developing better career and technical education. And Bustos helped pass the Boosting America’s Exports Act, which is helping small and medium-sized businesses. But more needs to be done.
Bipartisan solutions such as these will go a long toward developing more manufacturing jobs.
So, last week, I didn’t buy a “smart refrigerator.”
But here are some things I can buy: smart trade policies, smart education opportunities and smarter consumers.
– Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.