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Can America Stand On Her Own Two Feet?
Americans can hold the same idea in two different contexts at the same time: While embracing interdependence at home, we must also embrace self-reliance on the international stage
We can’t build enough cars because the chips, invented here in America, are all manufactured overseas. 30% of America’s oil is now being exported by giant oil corporations that are jacking up our gasoline prices because of a “shortage.” This is insane!
How did the Reagan administration and neoliberals ever since get away with making our nation almost totally reliant on China and a handful of other low-wage countries for everything from the chips in our cars to our cellphones to the tech necessary to build a battleship or missile?
And who turned our energy fate over to the Saudis?
Of all the concepts that ground most Americans’ idea of our country, self-reliance ranks among the top.
While much of it is based in fantasy ideas and children’s tales about “pioneers” carving their own lives out of the wilderness (in reality, community was the main value that guaranteed success for frontier towns), it’s nonetheless a foundational value intrinsic to Americans’ notion of themselves.
Self-reliance is also the number-one meme promoted by rightwing media and billionaires, celebrated by the Republican Party, and used to market everything from guns to trucks to survival food for Trump-humpers.
“Stand on your own two feet!” is a favorite GOP mantra, particularly when discussing poor people looking for bootstraps to pull themselves up with.
Self-reliance is an entirely different thing when applied to nations, however.
George Washington understood the concept of self-reliance on the national level; when he became president he asked his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, to come up with a plan to wean America off products manufactured in Britain.
Hamilton’s 11-Point Plan for American Manufactures, also known as The American Plan, literally built this country.
From 1793, when the American Plan was largely put into place, until the 1980s when the Reagan administration started taking a meat-axe to it in a big way, negotiating the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, which led to the World Trade Organization) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), we built things here.
In 1983 Louise and I moved to Atlanta and a new Wal-Mart had just opened down the road from us in, as I recall, the suburban town of Alpharetta. The banner that hung across the front of the massive building proudly echoed the title of Sam Walton’s autobiography: “100% Made In America!”
But in 1978 Lewis Powell of Powell Memo fame authored the Boston v Bellotti Supreme Court decision, which doubled-down on previous rulings that corporations were persons with constitutional rights. The decision also changed our laws so that when corporations use their profits to buy politicians it’s no longer bribery or corruption but, instead, constitutionally-protected “free speech.”
The result was Ronald Reagan floating into the White House in 1980 on a tsunami of fossil-fuel and corporate money and a lobbying frenzy to deconstruct the national industrial policy that Hamilton had so painstakingly put together and had sustained America for 188 years.
Arguing that labor was “just another commodity” and that corporations should be able to “freely” seek out the cheapest labor they could find anywhere in the world, corporate lobbyists and CEOs prevailed on Reagan and Congress to loosen or eliminate protective tariffs and other trade restrictions that kept American manufacturers here in this country.
The result was, over the past 40 years (most of it in the first 30 of those years), the closing of over 60,000 American factories and the transfer of over 15,000,000 good-paying mostly unionized American jobs to Mexico, China, Vietnam and elsewhere.
The era was epitomized by GE CEO Jack Welch, who famously argued that factories shouldn’t be tied to any particular country but, as cheaper labor became available across the horizon, should simply be able to float to that new location.
“Ideally,” went his famous and oft-quoted mantra, “you’d have every plant you own on a barge.”
Car prices account for about a third of our inflation rate today because supplies are so tight. The reason? We no longer manufacture the chips — invented here in America — necessary to operate today’s high-tech vehicles. Much of that manufacturing was sent off to China, where labor is cheap and there are no pesky unions to worry about…but the supply chain is now disrupted.
And yet Americans still believe in self-reliance. It’s baked into our psyches from our earliest years in school.
During one of my teenage summers my best friend Clark Stinson, his girlfriend Colleen, and I headed up to the Chippewa National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with two 10-foot tipis and 100 pounds of dried fruit and grains. With the help of an old trapper who lived there, we hauled our gear three days back into the forest to a small, unmarked lake, set up our tipis, and lived there for the next few months.
We were both junkies for Emerson and Thoreau and, infused with Emerson’s essay on self-reliance and Thoreau’s example at Walden Pond, spent the summer gathering wild plants, reading books on spirituality and wilderness survival, and meditating.
The biggest lesson I learned from the experience was that at the individual level self-reliance is largely a fantasy.
We all depend on each other, and without the infrastructure of a functioning society none of us will survive long. Even homeless people form community; it’s at the core of our humanity to be interdependent, even though that interdependence is the foundation of our sense of individual self-reliance.
The danger with interdependence, however, is when we become entangled with predators. Whether its low-income people getting by with payday loans and credit cards, workers so cowed they’re afraid to form a union, or diabetics being charged thousands of dollars a year for drugs that cost pennies to make, when predators have us by the neck all those high-minded notions of self-reliance go out the window.
It’s the same with nations.
We’ve become dependent on predators for our oil and our manufactured goods, and it has gutted America’s working class while putting us in dangerous military and foreign policy positions.
Back in 1975 during the Arab Oil Embargo, Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act which required the president to put into place rules banning the export of American-produced fossil fuels.
That law stood until 2015, when neoliberal Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota put forward the American Crude Oil Export Equality Act that was, later that year, rolled into an omnibus spending bill and signed into law by President Obama.
Wednesday I suggested that, in response to Saudi Arabia aligning itself with Putin, we should repeal Heitkamp’s legislation and go back to banning the export of crude and gasoline.
In seven short years we’ve gone from exporting none of our oil and being totally energy independent — self-reliant — to now exporting fully 30 percent of the oil produced in America.
Giant international oil companies are even refining US crude here, leaving us with the poisoned air, waste, and cancers, and then exporting the purified gasoline to other countries.
Last year, Bloomberg reported, gasoline exports reached a record high of 802,000 barrels a day, most going to Brazil and Mexico.
At the same time the fossil fuel industry pulled down an eye-watering $138 billion in profits in just the past three months, gas retailers in America jacked up prices because of a supposed gasoline shortage here. Right.
Now, in a moment of clarity, the Biden administration is considering repealing Heitkamp’s law or promulgating new export rules to return America to energy self-reliance.
It can’t come soon enough.
Similarly, we’ve allowed greedy manufacturing executives and corporations to move so much of our manufacturing to China and other low-wage nations that little is left of our nation’s capacity for self-reliance.
Congressman Ro Khanna of California published a book on the issue back in 2012, Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing is Still Key to America's Future, and recently published an article in the Boston Globe outlining his vision for a revival of American manufacturing, particularly in high-tech. He calls it “Economic Patriotism,” a phrase that should find resonance across the nation.
The final third of my newest book, The Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America, is largely devoted to Hamilton’s American Plan and how it was discarded by Reagan and has laid dormant through the administration of every president since.
This is a trans-partisan issue. In the 2016 election, Trump campaigned on bringing our factories back from China — another Trump lie — and it probably accounted for his taking several Midwestern states away from Hillary Clinton, who was still defending Bill’s embrace of “free trade.”
The myth of individual self-reliance has fueled libertarian and Republican fantasies ever since high school kids started reading Atlas Shrugged. Nonetheless, we truly are all in this together, and the more the morbidly rich try to pull out of their societal obligations the poorer and more desperate our nation becomes.
But at the level of nations, self-reliance is not only good but essential. If China were to attack Taiwan and simultaneously cut off all ships carrying goods to America, our economy would be on its knees within weeks. If Saudi Arabia were to cut off oil to the US, inflation would eat us alive.
Americans can hold the same idea in two different contexts at the same time: we’ve done it for centuries. While embracing interdependence at home, we must also embrace self-reliance on the international stage.