Does Engineering Matter and is Free Trade Really Free?

A few years ago, a great deal of discussion was generated in the "business community" about a paper someone wrote which asked, "Does Information Technology Matter?" I am not sure about the details of that discussion, but I think it is time that we ask the same question about engineering. Or worse yet, we now need to ask, "Does Industry Matter?

Well, I believe the answer depends on the scope of the discussion. If the scope of the discussion is solving the needs of mankind in the 21st Century, I would say industry and engineering does matter. If the scope of discussion is enabling mankind to explore, understand, and utilize the fabulous universe that surrounds us, again I would say that the answer is yes, industry and engineering does matter. However, if the scope of the discussion is satisfying CEO's, investors, and the DemoRepublicats in the US government, then I am afraid that industry and engineering does not matter any more. So, unfortunately, in the real, day-to-day world most of us find ourselves, we don't matter.

Two developments of the last few decades clearly indicate that our "leaders" care little for us and what we do. These developments were "free trade" and "outsourcing". Of course, these concepts are shrouded in the smoke that rises from the incense-burning of the Federal Reserve druids. And, mortals that actually contemplate whether these concepts are good policy are subjected to ridicule from the MBA brotherhood. But, it is undeniable that these immaturely-implemented concepts ensure that what engineers do (and what mechanical engineers do in particular) will soon evaporate in the US. It may be "fighting progress" to want to keep manufacturing and related arts in the United States, but what if I like building cars? Or trains? Or planes? Or rockets? Or cranes? Am I stupid for wanting to do work on something I can actually see and touch? Staring at piles of coins, bills, and stock certificates just does not "do it" for me.

More importantly, what if in order for a nation to be great it MUST not only build stuff itself, but it has to be the best in the world at it? Certainly the history of the last few centuries shows that the most industrially advanced nations are the most great (at least in the economic and political sense). Where does that leave the concepts of "free trade" or "outsourcing"? These concepts are entirely intended to take away our industrial base. So since our "leaders" are wise in the ways of politics and economics, I can only conclude that they knew this was going to happen, and that they simply don't want us to be great any more. Even better for them, making the public think industry does not matter is probably the most efficient way for them to make sure we are unable to threaten their inflated sense of importance based on investors making a quick buck (as opposed to the old days when greatness was associated with doing great things).

For fun, let's assume (by some miracle) that the US government did care about our industrial "base". How exactly does "free trade" harm it? It's very simple. If we have no tariffs or other politically motivated barriers to restrict the flow of goods from poor or undemocratic nations, then eventually everything will be built over there. In the ‘Peoples Republic of the Walmart Supply Chain’ for instance, there is no EPA, no OSHA, no product liability, no lawsuits, no trial-by-jury-of-your-peers, no rule of law, no presumption of innocence, no freedom to preach in the village square, no popular elections, no NLRB, no Civil Rights Act of 1965, no EEOC, no Family Leave Act, no right to strike. In short, there is no overhead cost at all (unless you want to factor in bribes or the extra business trips to "taste" the night-life in Bangkok). There is simply no way for us to compete with state-owned entities that make sure no Yankee can even decipher "who owns what".

And, thanks to longshoremen and teamsters that won't honor their labor union brothers and sisters heading for unemployment lines in Detroit, trillions of pounds of products are swiftly taken from Korean-made and French-made ships to our doorsteps each and every day.

It's enough to make me wish for the days when quality was "job one". In fact, it now looks like the whole quality "craze" was just a diversionary tactic while the auctioneers sized up our factories for liquidators. The fastest growing car sales are from Korean (and soon Chinese) manufacturers that have documented quality issues, so I guess quality is more like "job three" (after price and making fashion statements). Its funny how CEO's demand six sigma quality from their US employees, but buy cheap, low quality stuff at the drop of a hat if it comes from an "up and coming" Asian country. After all, you don''t want to be the only CEO at the club whose not "in on" the latest nation-based procurement price momentum vector.

Then again, maybe I am wrong. Let's just say that "free trade" eventually produces a trade surplus for the US as the other nation's costs rise as their living standard rises to meet ours. Does anybody know of an example where this actually happened? Please show me one single solitary example of this happening in the last 20 years based on a merchandise trade balance between the US and one former "third world" nation with more than 25 million in population. Just one, please.

For even more fun, let''s actually assume that "free trade" is a way to create a global prosperity-delivery machine that favors less developed nations with efficient (although dangerous) factories, and it favors the US with "high value added" activities such as finance, marketing, "brand" protection, and even engineering. Gotcha! Here comes outsourcing. So now even doing this "fun stuff" is going to be shipped out. Ask the CEO of IBM, GE, or HP if it can compete without using engineers from the former Soviet bloc or that large Asian sub-continent with tons of trade barriers to ensure local technology development? Come to think of it, China which is still Communist in every way politically is a much, much more important economic partner to the US than Russia which threw off the terrible, Satanic Communism. I wonder if Russia will regret that move, thanks to our greed-infested, unfettered raw capitalism.

Against these so-called "market forces" from the DemoRepublicats, I can only imagine one means of resisting and keeping at least a few cool jobs in the US. This would be intellectual property rights. Didn't the great global trade agreements (WTO, GATT, etc.) offer us great strides in this area? Countries will now respect our patent-type stuff. If I now come up with an amazing new invention that saves consumers tons of money, they will actually buy my expensive US product. All will be well again.

Sounds good, but there is no such thing as intellectual property rights in the very large socialist country West of Japan (as I was personally told by a patent attorney). Don't forget, there's no rule of law, no lawsuits, and no "transparency" there. You may get a non-disclosure agreement or a non-compete clause from Company A in that Asian place, but if all the people in Company A leave to form Company B, they can do anything they want, and the WTO means nothing. In fact, even intellectual property rights in the US do not prevent this trade secret stealing. I believe I am bound not to disclose trade secrets from one employer to the next based on something called the UCC or United Commercial Code (agreed to by the 50 state governments). This has nothing to do with intellectual property rights. Indeed, patents (which I normally think of as intellectual property rights) are a means to actually "disclose" inventions, not hide them. Do you think there is a UCC in Asia? If so, based on what evidence? If it is violated, what penalties are assessed?

Finally, even if patent-type laws did apply over there, there's more bad news. Governments don't enforce patent laws. You have to do it. You have to find infringement. You have to take the bad guys to court yourself. Do you think you are going to get on that Airbus European-made plane in New York City, get off in Shanghai, and walk into some lawyer's office and press a case against the lawyer's brother's crane company for patent infringement? I don't think so.

And, I don't think engineering matters here any more. I dare anyone in the United States of America to prove me wrong.

Stephen J. Schoonmaker
Chambersburg, PA

Review Article
  • Rings True March 09, 2006
    Reviewed by 'Sandor'
    If it's any consolation for American readers, you might say, it's better if you had something and lost it, than if you have never had it at all.

    At least in the US, there was a strong industry built on innovation and just by inertia, some of it still persists despite efforts to destroy it. In my home, in Australia, by comparison, the high-tech industries never managed to achieve much more than a toe-hold. Some patchy effort was made during the nineteen-eighties with various government grants and R&D tax concessions to stoke up the fire. Something did start up then but was promptly clobbered on the head by the following government. Now, we survive on mining, agriculture, tourism, selling imported goods to ourselves and our primary source of income, the ever growing foreign debt. Any other industry, high-tech or otherwise that still exists is gradually shrinking.

    The best bet for bright young engineers used to be to leave for the US to achieve intellectual and financial satisfaction. There is a reason why I said "used to be".

    At least, IT is doing well, right? Well not if you want to design or manufacture something. The big break for young IT graduates now is if they get a low-paying job at the tech support call center of an internet service provider. Even that is becoming scarce, because almost all of these centers have been, you guessed it, outsourced to developing countries.

    It's easy enough to pick out an example, a "company success story", to prove that it's all roses, roses, but usually it is a "despite" and not a "because" story. After all, if you look at WW II, there were people who became wealthier and some copanies did well during the terrible years of the war. Now, does that make it prosperous times??!

    As pointed out in one of the responses, we would all tell this story differently, but so much of Stephen Schoonmaker's article rings true, even for people in some other countries.

    I was a bit suspicious to start with, as I have seen similar articles deteriorate into a pointless rant, but I was relieved to find that it wasn't one-dimensional and it threw up some real important issues. Unfortunately, in a short article, you can only graze the surface of a complex and far-reaching topic.

    As for me, I don't see anything wrong with free trade or outsourcing if, and that's a big if, done sensibly and fairly to all involved. Clearly, that's generally not the case at the moment. Protectionism is not an answer either, but I won't try to claim that I have the ultimate answer and explain it in 25 lines here...

      2 of 2 found this review helpful.
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  • One possible answer January 14, 2006
    Reviewed by 'Theo'
    This is a very complex topic and I applaud Mr. Schoonmaker's initiative to take a stab at it. If you have five people in the room discussing outsourcing and free trade you'll get ten different opinions, but the discussion needs to take place.

    Being a hard core engineer, I too get frustrated with the tendencies of divestiture by american industry and society in added-value engineering. Thinking about the demands of the restructuring committes for Delphi, GM, and the airline companies, where workers are asked to take a 65% pay cut are just unbelievable.

    So what can we do about it? I feel that we as engineers need to become more enterpreneural. We need to take more initiative and bring added-value engineering to the market place ourselves. Working on the required 10% cost reduction for a bolt on the next GM car's transmission maybe what you get to work on for the american industrial complex, but that is not added-value engineering that will save our engineering profession. We need to move up into the decision making process of industrial products, and the only way I see we can do this while the industrie is divesting in us, is to take the initiative out of the hands of the MBAs. If you have a skill in designing transmissions, cast that skill in added-value products for high value industries such as speed shops, or after market hot-rods: but you have to do that as an enterpreneur, not as a pure design engineer.

    To recap, I think the answer to outsourcing is for us engineers to move up in the decision making process. If you follow orders from a bottomline driven management team, you are replacable and will be outsourced, because you are not adding sufficient value to compete with low-cost engineers in developing countries, which by the way tend to have a better education then the typical american engineer. If you 'see' what needs to get done, then go do it. Those engineers that don't will get outsourced.

      6 of 8 found this review helpful.
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  • Preach it! December 10, 2005
    Reviewed by 'Tom Joad, Engineer'
    I'm not sure what people in the manufacturing belt of the US are doing for work anymore.
    Wall-Mart is becoming the big employer in many of these areas. So people sell each other
    cheap crap that they don't need - that seems like a recipe for decline. I recently wathced
    a PBS American Experience documentary on Las Vegas. It seems that in the 50's, 60's, 70's
    and '80's people want to Vegas to escape. Now they're moving to Vegas to make a living.
    Turns out it's one of the only places where people without a college degree can make a living
    anymore. Used to be that a lot of those folks got manufacturing jobs. Vegas is now
    the fastest growing city in the US - something's screwy.

    In recent years it's the engineering jobs heading overseas. And all we hear is that engineers
    will move 'higher up the food chain' apparently into marketing-type jobs. But as Mr. Schoonmaker
    says, some of us like to design things. We like being engineers and we really don't care to
    become marketeers. So soon we won't make anything in the US and we won't even design
    much in the US. What will we do? We'll be lawyers, marketeers and burger flippers.
    Something's screwy.

    The threat of a global flu pandemic is revealing a flaw with this global "countries should do what
    they can do cheapest" economy: Guess what? We don't make a lot of basic medical supplies
    in the US anymore. Things like high-grade masks that would help filter out viruses, hypodermic
    needles, even a lot of different types of medicines - they're not made here anymore. We're
    dependent on overseas sources for many of these things and in many cases we're dependent on
    exactly the countries that will likely be hit first by a flu pandemic - countries in Asia. What
    happens if manufacturing is shut down in many of these countries for a month or two or
    three because they've been hit hard by flu? "Mr. Smith, you need an injection of this life saving
    drug, but.... I'm afraid we have no needles available; flu pandemic is hitting Asia pretty hard
    right now... We're trying our best to disinfect used needles. Bleach seems to work pretty
    well, but of course it's running low. Oh, and that lifesaving drug... well it's manufactured in
    Asia and we're running a bit short..."
    Something's screwy.

      5 of 7 found this review helpful.
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