This I Believe

Robert - Lawrenceville, New Jersey
Entered on April 21, 2007

Quailty is King

Once upon a time, the term, “Made in USA,” meant something about the high quality of the goods and the pride of the workers who made them. Then something happened. We took our collective eye off the ball, and turned inwardly, concerned more about “me” than “us.”

Remember the ad campaigns for Ford (“At Ford, Quality is Job One”), and Maytag (the lonely Maytag repairman)? Those ads have faded away, and so has the sentiment behind them. Have you noticed the decline in quality of products under those two great names? They’re not alone – many great names are suffering the same fate. Even Craftsman and Kenmore, the stalwart store brands of Sears, aren’t what they used to be.

One of the factors behind this is greed, pure and simple. Companies have become so short-term, bottom-line oriented, that investment in the future has suffered. And what greater investment in the future could there be than satisfying customers so they return for more? Incentive-based compensation programs have wreaked havoc on our values. We’ve all witnessed the huge windfalls that company executives have reaped while they drove their companies to bankruptcy, by cooking the books to achieve short-term objectives. Not only does this hurt the companies and their investors, but employee loyalty and pride suffers as well.

Businesses, in an effort to trim their costs to improve their financial outlook (or at least their look), often reduce benefits to employees; that is, if they don’t lay them off first. I recently reviewed a resume from someone who had been downsized, and was looking for a new professional opportunity. It was clear that he embodied one of the very things that had cost him his job. He spoke of his focus on “Quailty.” Wow! If I was looking for resluts, he’d be my man.

For those of us planning for retirement, Social Security’s no security – many of us have paid in to the program for years, only to hear that our checks might not be coming when we’re finally able to collect them. Gone are the days of great pension programs in private industry. Many have been replaced with stock option programs, which make retirement a game of chance, rather than a matter of choice. Of course, not everyone can improve their lot by misrepresenting the facts to drive the value of their company’s stocks up, and then cash in before anybody catches on, can they?

Another factor is competition. We have been world leaders in raising the standard of living in poor countries, in part by outsourcing production to them, and in so doing, exporting our prosperity. The irony here is that we outsource because it is cheaper; the prosperity that results in other countries increases their standard of living, which is a good thing; the resulting buying power increases demand for goods that are produced, and the cost goes up. We’re going to Hell in a Hyundai. Just look at the cost of oil, now that other countries (particularly China and India) are becoming industrialized and are competing with us for this vital, limited commodity.

In economics, it has often been said that a rising tide lifts all boats. The analogy doesn’t take into account those boats that are firmly tied to their moorings. In many ways, we are anchored by our greed, and our tendency to avoid low-paying and low-skilled jobs, choosing outsourcing instead. Our middle class is shrinking in the process. The gulf between the upper and lower classes is growing wider. But wasn’t it the middle class that was responsible for most of the progress we’ve made over the past hundred years or so? We’re failing our youth by making them feel that being in the middle class isn’t good enough for them. We’ve adopted our parents’ notion that we want the next generation to be better off than ours, but ignored what it takes to achieve that – sayin’ it don’t make it so.

Unions were responsible for much of the growth of the middle class in the past. But many of the unions have succumbed to the same element, greed, and have lost their luster. In addition, they’ve lost much of their competitive edge. Instead of providing job skills and job opportunities, they’ve focused on job security, and in some cases, so much specialization that they’ve priced themselves out of the market. Unions have a place in our future, but they have to adapt to it.

Once upon a time, the term, “Made in USA,” meant something about the high quality of the goods and the pride of the workers who made them. Our great nation needs to return to those bygone days. We need to take pride in our work, and concern ourselves with the quality of the goods we make. We need to export our products instead of our production. Our lives and our national security depend on it. It’s no longer about me. It’s about U.S.