How America Could Collapse
By Matt Stoller, The Nation
July 27, 2011
(T)he global supply chain is so tangled and fragile that next time it could be electronics, weaponry, or even food or medicine. As Lynn noted in an interview with Dylan Ratigan, China controls 100 percent of the national supply of ascorbic acid, which is a basic food preservative. Leading oncologists are already warning that we are experiencing severe shortages of generic yet pivotal cancer drugs, because there’s no incentive for corporations to make them.
According to Lynn’s groundbreaking book End of the Line, the essential problem is a basic shift in the way that American multinationals operate. In the 1980s, the competitive manufacturing threat from Japan led most large companies to eliminate waste in their production facilities. As a result, they stopped keeping spare parts on hand. Eventually, companies began outsourcing production itself, as profits came increasingly from extractive monopolistic power over an economic system. Walmart is an important example; its profits come from the power it can exert on its suppliers, telling them what to make and how to make it, while the company itself functions as a giant autocratic marketplace and trading operation. Increasingly, this is the model of success in our global economy. Boeing, Cisco, Apple—all of them rely on their power over an ecosystem of production facilities halfway around the world. They have become rent extractive profit-machines, which is a relatively new phenomenon.
It was in the 1990s that American multinationals, spurred by government policy, began outsourcing operations to China. At the same time, the Clinton administration steadily relaxed antitrust enforcement, leading to massive corporate consolidation and the creation of the virtual firm. By the early parts of the last decade, the ideal American multinational made its profits by using its market power to gut labor and supply prices and by using its political power to eliminate taxation. All of this turned giant American institutions against making things. This is why we rely on a British factory to make our flu vaccine, why global videotape production was knocked offline by a tsunami and why that same event slowed the gigantic auto industry. US corporate leaders now see the idea of making things as a cost of doing business, one best left to others. What has happened as a result is that much of the production for critical products and services that make our economy run is constructed by a patchwork global network of suppliers all over the world in unstable regions, over which we have very little control. An accident or political problem in any number of countries may deny us not just iPhones but food, medicine or critical machinery.
There’s a good amount of grumbling about the state of American infrastructure—collapsing bridges, high-speed rail, etc. But American infrastructure is not just about public goods, it’s about how the corporations that enforce, inform and organize economic activity are themselves organized. Are they doing productive research? Are they spreading knowledge and know-how to people who will use it responsibly? Are they creating prosperity or extracting wealth using raw power? And most importantly, are they contributing to the robustness of our society, such that we can survive and thrive in the normal course of emergencies?
The answer to all of these questions right now is “no.” And while this may not be hitting the elite segments of the economy right now, there will be no escape from a flu pandemic or significant food shortage. The re-engineering of our global supply chain needs to happen—and it will happen, either through good leadership or through collapse. This means that our government and our society needs to reorient our economy toward manufacturing and rededicate our corporations to productive uses. This will require a new conception of antitrust laws to ensure that monopolistic or oligopolistic practices in pivotal industries aren’t placing our culture at risk. It means understanding the networks of suppliers and sub-suppliers. And it means ending the race to the bottom that pushes deflationary pressures on labor and the social safety net. All of this can insure a more robust culture and economy, one which can withstand national security or environmental challenges. The sooner our leaders, both in public and private institutions, recognize how highly vulnerable we are to a societal collapse, the better chance we have of avoiding collapse.