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What Seems to Matter

Jan. 3, 2023
We need information more than opinions, and we need results more than forecasts. Producing things, building things, matters most.

“Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?”
That’s an almost-famous quote by a no-longer-famous writer, E.C. Bentley, who at the start of the last century was sort of a pundit. He wrote a few detective novels and humor columns for monthly magazines. If he’s remembered now, it’s mostly for witty epigrams. Humor usually has a temporary impact, but it’s the above quote that makes Bentley memorable now, at least for me. It’s a thought that occurs to me frequently.

There is a pretty strict rule here not to begin by writing about oneself, because that subject is hard to elevate to readers’ interest. So Bentley offers me a way to explain the dilemma that starts every column: How to make the present moment seem consequential.

January is always filled with uncertainty. It seems important – but why? And when will we know if it is important? This year, those of us with an interest in manufacturing are waiting for confirmation that we’re not just imagining the very serious circumstances that have been apparent for more than a year. It’s close to impossible to hire workers to fill open positions, which compounds the longstanding difficulty of retaining skilled workers for demanding jobs.

New orders for durable goods continue to impress economists and analysts, which makes manufacturers’ labor problems seem even more critical. Thus, work orders continue to backup, sort of a new dimension to the 2021 supply-chain problem.

These problems take on more importance because of the fact that money has become more expensive. That is, it costs more to borrow money since the Federal Reserve Bank began to raise interest rates midway through last year. Manufacturers do not typically pay for new projects directly; they take loans based on anticipated future income, and such loans now are “priced” higher thanks to the Fed’s moves – which are being implemented to control the rise in prices – inflation, which resulted from the U.S. and other governments infusing their markets with cash during 2020-2021.

All of this matters quite a lot to manufacturers, which are businesses that aim to achieve stability and continuity. This contrasts with the aims of economists, who want to measure trends and developments, and of analysts, who have elevated the concept of ‘disruption’ – changes in a market that cause a business to surpass its competitors in some beneficial and lasting way. Economists and analysts seem to view the apparent onset of a recession as a new episode in a long-running series. They want to see something happen.

Manufacturers with long memories are comparing this time to 1981-82, when the industrial sector had been booming for several consecutive years but crashed when businesses could no longer afford the rising costs of raw materials, energy, parts and labor. It was a profound and sustained recession that in many people’s memories started the decline of domestic manufacturing. Offshore suppliers of raw materials and semi-finished goods, and eventually consumer products, grabbed market share and numerous domestic businesses were subsumed or simply failed.

To economists and analysts, this history is not so grim because they see in it the start of globalization – which they count as a miracle of economic growth and social progress.

Back in the present, there is real evidence of a shift in globalization, with the reshoring phenomenon underway and businesses based on technological changes that suggest different ways of manufacturing.

The point is that what matters or seems to matter may not be known for certain, almost certainly not in January, if one relies solely on the perspective of a manufacturer, or an economist, or an analyst. They have different values, different ways of judging things.

My own bias is closer to the manufacturers’ – whose perspectives we’re giving greater attention to in this issue – because their products will last longer than anyone’s opinions. We need information more than opinions, and we need results more than forecasts. We need things that last longer than epigrams. Producing things, building things, matters most.

About the Author

Robert Brooks | Content Director

Robert Brooks has been a business-to-business reporter, writer, editor, and columnist for more than 20 years, specializing in the primary metal and basic manufacturing industries. His work has covered a wide range of topics, including process technology, resource development, material selection, product design, workforce development, and industrial market strategies, among others. Currently, he specializes in subjects related to metal component and product design, development, and manufacturing — including castings, forgings, machined parts, and fabrications.

Brooks is a graduate of Kenyon College (B.A. English, Political Science) and Emory University (M.A. English.)