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Originally published January 27, 2012 at 7:01 PM | Page modified January 28, 2012 at 10:44 PM

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Yes, we can bring manufacturing jobs back here

There's no inevitability about Asia maintaining dominance. America until very recently dominated high-tech manufacturing jobs but allowed them to slip away because of purblind policies.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Thanks to the reporting of The New York Times, most Americans are just waking up to the brutal realities of the offshoring of high-tech jobs to make Apple's iconic products, with Chinese workers doing this under serflike conditions.

As the newspaper reported last week; "Employees work long hours, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long, that their legs swell until they have trouble walking.

"Underage workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

"More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers' disregard for workers' health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens."

Apple is hardly alone. Most nominally American companies have sent their high-tech manufacturing overseas in recent years, further limiting the possibilities of economic mobility of hard-pressed Americans. Amazon's Kindle is also made at the suicide-plagued factories of Foxconn in China.

On my blog, I asked what Henry Ford would make of this. Although he later became a crank and was no friend of unions, Ford's breakthrough insight was to pay good wages to American workers in order for them to purchase his cars.

Other early-20th century leaders, such as National Cash Register's John Henry Patterson, instituted similar practices, eliminating American sweatshops.

The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs chose to move us backward. And why not? Some $400,000-per-employee generated by Apple is a sweet payoff for top executives and elite engineers and designers.

Yet many average Americans, facing stagnant or falling wages, have indulged in this gadget-fest on unsustainable debt. When the spending slows or stops in what remains the world's largest consumer market, Apple will feel the pain, too.

According to a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, nearly one-quarter of Americans work in low-wage jobs, higher than other advanced nations.

One Apple exec said, "We don't have an obligation to solve America's problems."

This is particularly offensive, the epitome of corporation-as-sociopath.

Apple and its cohorts wouldn't exist without the taxpayer money that developed the Internet, paid for public-university graduates and government research and development, and polices the 10,000-mile-long supply chain with the U.S. Navy. They are insistent that the U.S. government protect their intellectual property.

Clyde Prestowitz, on his influential blog on Foreign Policy, recalled that when he was a top trade negotiator in the Reagan administration, "Steve Jobs and other Apple executives had the funny notion that the U.S. government had an obligation to help them, and asked me and other negotiators at the Commerce Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to help them get on the shelf in Japan."

Prestowitz makes the essential point that this manufacturing has not moved to China because of costs. Germany and Japan are both successful high-wage, high-cost export superpowers.

Rather, China has the neo-mercantilist policy of requiring U.S. companies to put factories there rather than having to buy our exports.

Other Asian countries have also engaged in "interventionist industrial policies": currency manipulation, tax breaks, subsidies and outright protectionism.

Steve Jobs told President Obama that these manufacturing positions are not coming back, that the infrastructure now exists in Asia. This is hardly a reason to give up.

For one thing, Intel shows that some of this work can still be done profitably here. Our productivity and innovation remain strong.

There's no inevitability about Asia maintaining its edge. America until very recently dominated high-tech manufacturing jobs but allowed them to slip away because of purblind policies.

According to Prestowitz: "Asia got them because its governments and corporations worked hand in glove to get them. There is no reason why the United States government can't work hand in glove with corporations to get at least some of them back. It's not rocket science. Just imitate what the Asians (and Germans) do."

In his State of the Union address, Obama seemed to begin to understand this. The question now is how hard the American people will push to make this happen, or just settle for Wal-Mart jobs and national suicide.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jontalton.

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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest
jtalton@seattletimes.com

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