When President Obama asked Steve Jobs what it would take to make the iphone in the US (New York Times, January 21, 2012) , the question seemed simple enough. Jobs’ straightforward response “Those jobs aren’t coming back” was vaguely condescending, but it was realistic. Obama’s question made a good sound-bite; let’s just hope Obama understands the futility of asking such a question.
Along the same lines, for the second year in a row, on Super-Bowl Sunday Chrysler aired a commercial promoting Detroit and the strength of the American spirit. This year’s installment featured Clint Eastwood’s steel-jawed proclamation that it’s ‘half-time’ in America, and provocative images of a modern auto-assembly line. Apparently this is going to bring about the return of Detroit’s economic heydey. Looks like Chrysler (and Eastwood?) saw the following Steve Jobs quote, but stopped reading after the first sentence:
“This country is insanely great. What I’m worried about is that we don’t talk enough about solutions.” (NYT, 1.21.2012)
Obama (and Chrysler) needs to start talking about real solutions. Re-inventing the auto assembly line in America is at best a short term move, and attempting to manufacture apple products in the United States is pointless. By the time we got that set up, through government incentives and corporate buy-in, the wave will have passed. It would be more productive to spend our time and effort figuring out where the global economy is likely to go and what resources will be valuable in the future, and then start setting the economic and legislative table to develop the domestic infrastructure needed to make the future happen here.
In a consumer-driven world, it’s conceivable that the only thing which will ever allow an economy to flourish long-term is cheap labor. Historically, cheap labor has been the backbone of rapid economic growth. Mature economies develop and stagnate. We will not (and should not) ever have cheap labor again. But where is the world heading? Is global consumerism really going to carry us indefinitely? What will the next ‘generation’ of global citizens value? And how can debate around this topic be channeled in a way that will yield concrete steps towards the development of systems that will allow mature economies to continue to prosper?
These are the “solutions” that Steve Jobs was referring to. Not simplistic questions about replicating foreign manufacturing systems at home. And certainly not looking to the past for examples about how to make us great again. I hope it isn’t “half-time in America”, because that would only give us another 250 years before it’s game over.