Friday, January 21, 2011

What's Good for General Electric …?

Once upon a time there was a slogan:

What’s good for General Motors is good for the USA!

The fact that this slogan is now so off the mark provides a valuable indicator of just how much things can change in unexpected ways.  Nevertheless, after reading Jeffrey R. Immelt’s announcement on the Web site for The Washington Post, I have to wonder if the way we deal with such slogans is just to go in and change the names.  The announcement came at the beginning of a piece for the Opinions section, submitted with the strategically placed time-stamp of one minute after midnight (Eastern time) today.  The title of this piece is “A blueprint for keeping America competitive;”  and its first-sentence announcement is as follows:

President Obama has asked me to chair his new President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

The BBC News account was quick to observe that this appointment has not yet been formally announced by the White House (although that announcement may have taken place by the time this post is filed).  It also notes that the new panel will replace the current Economic Recovery Advisory Board chaired by Paul Volker.  Volker has not exactly been a cheerleader for recovery progress, as readers of publications that try to avoid any connection with the commercial private sector, such as The New York Review, know full well.  So is this a matter of tearing down one henhouse and setting up another more conducive to foxes?

At the very least there was something a bit Napoleonic about Immelt’s initiative in announcing his own appointment (even if it was more modest than Napoleon placing the Imperial Crown on his head by himself, rather than accepting it from the Pope).  After all, as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of General Electric (GE), Immelt already has a somewhat imperial stature.  On the other hand it is clear that Immelt wants to emphasize the name-change, since he is quite generous in his use of the noun “jobs” in his Washington Post  The question is whether he is meaningfully generous. piece.

After all, it was not that long ago that Immelt was talking about selling electricity-generating hardware to China;  and this may be a good case study for where his interests really lie.  If providing more electricity to China will depend on hardware manufactured in the United States, then at the very least this move can be view as a job-creator.  The fact that those jobs are at GE is an inevitable corollary.  Nevertheless, much of the hardware required cannot be easily transported, meaning that any job-creation is likely to be shared between the United States and China, probably under a common GE umbrella.  So Immelt’s perspective on jobs for Main Street, USA may not be as sanguine as his writing would lead us to believe, particularly when we read down to his position on free-trade agreements and his casual dismissal of arguments that such agreements have eroded domestic manufacturing jobs.

Immelt’s statement concludes with his own personal cheerleading for innovation.  He sees innovation as an essential ingredient in the creation of new manufacturing jobs.  This could indeed be the case if the country as a whole were to shift its priority back to a manufacturing economy, turning away from the glamorous modernism of an information economy.  More likely, however, is that what will emerge is an economy grounded on some kind of synthesis of manufacturing and information;  and the greatest risk is that the working conditions for such an economy will amount to a new generation of sweatshops of the sort I considered yesterday.  Is this the sort of world of “jobs and competitiveness” that Barack Obama envisions for the United States of America?

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