Crazy World

“Manufacturing for Growth” study Global execs’ wishes International ideal in doubt

Whenever I’m stuck for a topic to write about I sort through the research studies and white papers that various sources send me. I draw lots of information from consultants and interest groups who make it their business to identify a subject of less-than-general-interest, and to assemble volumes of information in order to inform the public and shape opinions in favor of their positions. They’re like ad agencies for big ideas.

I don’t mean to imply that they inform my opinion – though, that might happen, too. But, frequently they help to reconfirm some conviction, and that’s reassuring.

For example, recently the World Economic Forum (“an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas”) and Deloitte (the corporate accounting and consulting agency) surveyed global executives to learn what government policies are needed “to shape the next generation of manufacturing competitiveness.”

The three-volume study they issued this month is called, “Manufacturing for Growth,” and it concludes that “executives around the world crave government policies that simplify taxes and protect free and fair trade – along with stronger energy and infrastructure policies, and more focused education and workforce frameworks. They also want science, technology and innovation policies that promote advanced manufacturing.”

Pity the poor global executives that have to share our less-than-perfect world.  Let me pause to inject that the assumption that preceded the WEF/Deloitte study is more revealing to me than the conclusions: Do global executives have opinions that need greater exposition and examination? Do we need to give greater consideration to their goals? 

I’m inclined to believe that people should be judged by their works, and from that point of view I offer that we know fairly well what would satisfy global executives. Big businesses want big programs that will help them coordinate and execute their efforts to grow bigger.  Corporations only object to high taxes and excessive regulations when those things impede their growth. If the taxes and regulations help to drive customers to the business, no problem.

So, what intrigues me about the WEF/Deloitte study is the idea that it was conceived, conducted, compiled, and released at all. For much of the past 20 years, we have been prepared for the inevitable emergence of a global economy. Databases unify systems and technologies, software mimics decision-making and conducts transactions, and network computing has collapsed time and space. Nothing about this is novel any longer.

Global corporations have been the greatest proponents of the international ideal, to the consternation of many interests (e.g., labor, environmentalists) that have nothing else in common. Among the global executives referenced by the WEF/Deloitte study, it has been an article of faith that the world is growing smaller and more integrated.  This is our destiny, we have been assured.

Apparently, though – and the existence of the study is evidence  —  the ideal is not all that inevitable. It may be at risk, in the eyes of the global executives. They want lower taxes and regulation in the U.S., cheaper energy and labor in Germany, more stable currency in Japan, higher environmental standards and more available energy in China, less restrictive labor laws and better infrastructure in India, and better scientific and technical education in Brazil. 

I don’t want to seem indifferent or dismissive. I’m sure the problems cited in this study are worthy of attention, but I doubt that accomplishing this ambitious task list will “create a progressive, innovative enabling environment for manufacturing,” in the words of Andrew Liveris, who heads the WEF’s Manufacturing for Growth project.  Rather, I think it would make powerful corporations even more influential, with more sway over their markets and fewer opportunities for their customers or competitors. This would not be a more competitive world, though it might be a more predictable one.

In short, my doubt is grounded in a different sort of faith, which is in the supremacy of the individual. I’d like these manufacturing companies to grow and prosper  — not so that they can succeed but rather so that we can succeed. I’d like my taxes lower, my regulations lighter, my energy cheaper, my environment cleaner, and my education better — and I’d like them to help accomplish all this, rather than comply with their wishes.  I’d like them to earn their success, not demand it.

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