The hopeful message I took away from "The Company Men" is that there's still a future for high-skilled manufacturing in the United States if workers and management pull out of the corporate fast lane, roll up their sleeves and work together to proudly build great products that generate reasonable but not spectacular pay and profit.
As it happens, this is also the theme of a new book, "Make It in America," by Andrew Liveris. Perhaps because Liveris is Australian by birth, his economic patriotism comes across as genuine and heartfelt. The fact that he is chief executive of Dow Chemical gives the book added authority. What is most noteworthy about the book, however, is his unsparing critique of the business community for its blind faith in markets and globalization, and its stubborn refusal to accept a government role in managing the economy.
"At a time when U.S. companies - run by patriotic people - are moving offshore at the fastest rate in history, we should, at a minimum, recognize that the model we are relying on isn't working," Liveris writes. "It is time to recognize that if we don't act soon, if we continue to let markets rule in every instance, we will become the global economy's biggest bystander, and potentially its biggest drain. . . . It is time for us to recognize, whether we like it or not, that for now, in certain key areas, we actually need more government, not less."
This is not the official message coming from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but I can tell you that it is one you hear with increasing frequency and urgency from top executives in public forums and private conversations. In terms of the competitiveness of our companies, the skills of our workers and the pace of innovation, there is increasing concern that we are approaching a dangerous tipping point, even in what is supposed to be our economic sweet spot: high tech.
The story goes something like this: For decades, the governments of China and other Asian countries offered low wages and extravagant subsidies to lure U.S companies to build plants there. For years, Americans acquiesced to off-shoring because it fattened corporate profits, lowered consumer prices and fit neatly with a free-trade-free-market consensus among the economic elite. Any suggestion that we stem the outflow of investment or the inflow of products was dismissed as protectionism, and any suggestion that we try to match those subsidies was derided as a misguided effort to have government pick "winners and losers."