Recently I had a couple of beers on a Friday afternoon with an old college chum, who now owns and operates a small, high-tech manufacturing company in Exton (PA). Bill made two intriguing comments. The first was an assertion: “If you’re not making money as a manufacturer in this country, it’s because you’re dumb.” The second was: “Container ships bringing goods to the U.S. from China used to travel back home empty. Today, if you want to ship overseas, you have to reserve a container well in advance.”
Bill’s words came echoing back to me, when the NPR six o’clock news reported, even more recently, that America’s gross domestic product (GDP) had grown by 3.3 percent during 2008’s second quarter. “The overwhelming story is that the export numbers have offset… domestic weakness in consumer spending and business investment,” John Silvia of Wachovia Corp observed elsewhere in the media.
That very night, Barack Obama, accepting the Democratic nomination, commented, “Change means a tax code that doesn’t reward the lobbyists who wrote it, but the American workers and small businesses who deserve it. Unlike John McCain, I will stop giving tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas, and I will start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America. I will eliminate capital gains taxes for the small businesses and the start-ups that will create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow.”
I liked the sound of that. By the time this column is in print, we’ll know what John McCain has to say on the same subject. Let’s hope it’s something along the same lines. Clearly, small-business entrepreneurs like my friend Bill are key to our future. This has always been the case in America.
Many years ago, when I was a Coast Guardsman on the Great Lakes, I visited a maritime museum that featured old photos of ice harvesting. Intrigued, I researched the subject and learned that in 19th century New England, ice harvesting was big business. Crafty Yankee merchants cut blocks of ice from lakes, ponds and rivers, packed it in saw dust below their ships’ waterlines and shipped it all the way around the world. A website called “The Heart of New England” [http://www.theheartofnewengland.com] confirms my memory: “The birth of America’s large scale commercial ice industry began in
New England in 1805. Frederick Tudor, a Boston merchant, created the first
natural ice business in the United States. He shipped ice harvested on a pond in
Lynn, Massachusetts to the West Indies. Over the next thirty years Tudor made
a fortune shipping ice around the world to places like Charleston, New
Orleans, Cuba, Calcutta, South America, China and England. British records
show that Queen Victoria purchased some ice from Massachusetts in the 1840’s.”
Who but an American entrepreneur would conceive of a scheme such as this, and then work out the technology to make it a reality? In his famous trilogy, “The Americans,” historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, “Between the Revolution and the Civil War, America flourished not in discovery but in search. It prospered not from the perfection of its ways but from their fluidity. It lived with the constant belief that something else or something better might turn up.”
Obama’s acceptance speech captured Boorstin’s sentiment: “It is that American spirit — that American promise — that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain… that makes us fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.”
In the 1890s another famous historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, worried in a famous paper and a book that the official Federal announcement of the closing of the American frontier during that decade might start the decline of the American democracy. He didn’t know that Americans would continue finding, or creating, new frontiers. In the 1960s the New Frontier was in outer space. In the 1990s it was in cyberspace.
The surprising vigor of our economy from April through June had many causes, some surely beyond our control and purely serendipitous. But it wasn’t all by accident, as my old college buddy, Bill, would be the first to tell you.