The Amboy MomentJanuary 1, 2017 by Thomas Tatum
Where there were once some 800 people living on and servicing the needs of a stream of travelers enroute between Chicago and Los Angeles, a mere handful remain today to greet a slow trickle of tourists, enjoying themselves as they relive a nostalgic moment of Americana, often on motorcycles. A gas station provides a restroom, a cold drink and a bit of shade as a brief respite from the sun during the 115°F days of the California desert. The real traffic rumbles by on the nearby interstate or passes high overhead inbound to LAX. The school is closed, as is the motel with its iconic roadside sign. The occasional film take or fashion shoot taps a past which feels wistfully familiar to most of us but which does nothing to ensure that this spot survives, much less becomes a community again.
As the 2016 election campaign came to a close, this image tugged at my sleeve when one heard of the Rust Belt and the anger and frustration of voters fearful or even convinced that a monstrous mix of progress and politics is conspiring to leave them behind for the benefit of a world seemingly beyond their reach. One can lay much blame at DJT’s feet for exploiting these themes and emotions on his way to the White House, and the manner in which he did so, but the reality is that they are nonetheless real anxieties shared by many people. But why have Youngstown and a vast number of similar places ever become that what they are today? While many factors contribute to such development, the tough truth is that today’s economic landscape, for better or worse, is largely the result of choices made by Americans over many years both as voters and as consumers. Globalization and trade agreements, flawed or not, are only manifestations of these choices. An old adage which most of us have heard states that you get what you pay for. Little of the heated political discourse and associated insults being hurled nowadays comes close to this simple truth.
To put it bluntly: the people hoping for a revival of heavy industry and mining, of manufacturing and a highway full of exclusively American cars are setting themselves up for a major disappointment. Of course, it can be done. But not for the price people have come to expect. For the same reason that we don’t individually farm our own produce, cut our own meat, sew our own shirts or print our own newspapers, we as a society have over the years elected to outsource these tasks and buy the products and services we need. Jobs were not stolen, markets were not taken away. The hysteria about Japan, Inc. was just as exaggerated a few years back as the present sniping at China or Mexico. If we were working hard at jobs bringing more value, there would be a lot less discontent out there (and, by the way, in all fairness and as a matter of record: this is not an affliction exclusive to Americans).
Can anyone out there imagine Emeril Lagasse whining because McDonalds is outselling him because of outrageously cheap pricing? Think about it for a moment: Emeril and his peers can’t (and won’t) sell you a burger for a buck. And why should they? The investment he or any other entrepreneur makes in a restaurant is calculable–assuming size and locations are similar, the bricks and mortar, the tables and silverware cost pretty much the same for everyone so that’s not the main reason the burger chains have a few gazillion more restaurants than Emeril does. Instead, there’s a sizable investment in marketing, in reaching the people you want as customers. While it’s only a guess, I suspect Emeril’s is higher as a percentage of his turnover than the franchise burger chains. And then there’s quality–leaving the economies of scale aside for a moment, the less variety food has and the more processed it is, the cheaper will be. The same applies to the people in the kitchen: unskilled labor helps keep the price of the product down, it’s the final piece in the puzzle that makes that $1 burger possible. By contrast, serving a bigger variety of fresher food requires people who are trained to be up to the task. There’s nothing dishonorable about flipping burgers but it’s more often than not the people in Emeril’s kitchens who will one day start out on their own because they learned how to make the demand for upscale dining–in which atmosphere, quality, appearance and creativity are writ large–work for them. Working for Emeril, they’re learning more and they’re earning more. No cause for undue worry, though: budgets and tastes will always vary, so there’s going something for everybody further down the road as well.
But there’s a hard lesson tucked away in this example and, happily, some of America’s industries are already thinking how stuff like this applies to what they do. Let’s hope that, sometime soon, America’s consumers and workers come to understand how their own choices affect everyone’s lives and adjust their behavior accordingly.