Saturday, March 07, 2009


The broken 'made in China' stub wrench: Metaphor
for the US in 2009

We're getting a dose of what security means in the predator state: A fallen over economy and mass-firings. In the past eight years, our leaders were good at making us look the other way. See the Islamic terrorists! They want to destroy our way of life!

But underneath our noses, a different story unfolded, one of a place that made no sense, a land that worked hard at destroying a way of life all by itself.

Let's employ a bit of a fable to define it: The tale of the broken stub wrench, pictured above.

In southern California, everyone has embedded lawn sprinklers. And sometimes, the sprinkler heads are damaged, like when your neighbor runs over one with his SUV. When that happens, you have to replace the fractured sprinkler. And that job requires that you remove a broken piece of it, called a stub, from the water pipe outlet which serves the sprinkler.

There is a tool for doing this and it is called a stub wrench.

DD did not have a stub wrench when this happened to a sprinkler in his yard last summer. So I went to the hardware store on Colorado Street in Pasadena to buy one. That stub wrench is pictured above. It was made in China.

For a stub wrench to work, it has to be a little like a corkscrew. That is, you have to be able to twist it into the broken plastic stub of the sprinkler head. Burrs on the tip of it dig into the stub, allowing you to untwist the broken piece from the outlet coupling, thus removing it. Then you can screw in a replacement sprinkler.

This stub wrench had no burrs and DD didn't notice until he got home. No matter how I tried to make it work, no dice.

So DD went back to the hardware store and marveled at an entire shelf of 'made in China' stub wrenches, all the same, all guaranteed not to work, all with the name of an American company on them. But they were cheap, only about three dollars a piece.

It was an astounding display, not only because of the broken-before-buying quality of the goods, but also because it was obvious that people who bought them never complained. So these non-working items just stayed in stock and were never removed, a Ponzi pay-and-get-ripped-off scheme on the micro-scale, a metaphor for the entire economy, now collapsed but still sitting on the shelf in its polystyrene shrink wrap -- broke. I could only wonder that the reason the stub wrenches weren't removed was that people who bought them, perhaps not being familiar with how stub wrenches were supposed to work, felt that the problem lay with them. If the stub wrench did not function, it was because they did not know how to use it. So they just gave up and asked a plumber or a yard man to do the job.

DD is sure that at the beginning of the great downturn this is how many mass fired Americans felt, too. It wasn't the screwed-up policies and corrupt economic ways of the country that were at fault. It was them, for not being efficient and cheap enough to justify their continued employment. We've been conditioned to feel that way by years and years and years of newspaper articles, business books, and experts pontificating on the meaning of employment in America. If you were fired, it was because you allowed yourself to become obsolete, a lazy person without proper skills, worthless and inefficient.

Surely, as more than a half a million are fired each month, this belief is changing. How high can unemployment go? Ten percent? Fifteen? What happens when 1 or 2 Americans in every ten are out of work and with no obvious prospects?

But back to the stub wrench. DD imagines China isn't much like southern California. And whatever region the stub wrench is manufactured in, there are very few lawns with embedded sprinkler systems. I am certain that those making the stub wrenches for a daily wage cannot afford such things. And whether or not the stub wrench does not work, to them, is immaterial. It just matters that they get to make them, courtesy of an American company which probably used to make them twenty years ago, but doesn't anymore. The former owners of the company are now retired and don't know their company turned evil, fired its workers and sold off its tool-making equipment so that it could resell something non-functional.

You would think that such a practice would ensure a company goes out of business. But it hasn't worked that way for a long time. Up until late last year, you could literally always produce rubbish in lots of industries -- whether it be an actual physical good -- or something like a financial 'product', and get away with it.

Freakish examples of this exist wherever one turns.

Take Fender's new series of "roadworn" guitars, also shown above.

In the past couple of years, Fender -- which is the American-made electric guitar icon -- has seen its business expand in an unusual way. Artificially beat-up guitars -- called 'relics', outrageously priced, grew to be ten percent of its business, selling to the wealthy who wanted an instrument that looked like Eric Clapton had played it for two decades.

But these artificially worn guitars were way too expensive for average musicians who bought 'Fender' guitars which had been offshored and manufactured in China, Vietnam, or Mexico. So the problem to be 'solved': How to sell 'worn' guitars at a price that would draw more in.

So, just before Christmas, Fender tooled up to make less expensive 'roadworn' classic 'American' guitars in Mexico. Keep in mind, at one time in the far distant past, Fender used to be a big employer in Fullerton, California. The company WAS the sound of early American rock and roll.

Now a big part of its business consists of what amounts to "gilded age"-type buys, items with a faddy snob appeal, sold to the fickle and vain, a customer base that could just as well blow away in the wind some day. Like now.

All through the entire US, virtually nothing worthwhile is made. Even toilet seats, which used to be made here, are made in China and rebranded by an American company which used to make them, but which fired everyone and ... Those toilets seats which DD has purchased blister and peel in months, when -- as a child in Pine Grove -- the American-made one never had to be replaced.

For the sake of compressing the wages of the middle class for decades, manufacturing of goods which defined the United States, was stopped and moved overseas. And we didn't complain because the cheaper goods were affordable under this wage compression. Energy, housing, and US-made autos, which are necessities, ballooned.

Of course, America does still make some things. Food -- people have to eat. So we use illegals to do that.

The formerly good 'ol US makes land mines and phosphorus incendiary bombs in Pine Bluff. So Arkansas is probably doing OK. We make fighter jets, big submarines and guns. (This leads the cynic to muse that if only we could declare a larger war and move to full mobilization...)

America does cable TV monopoly really good. It resells made-in-China T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs with clever sayings on them. It leads the world in social networking sites and Internet search. And social networking businesses will grow because an economic collapse is a boon for them.

Has there been a week in the past couple of months when a daily newspaper or an Internet news site didn't admonish you to get LinkedIn or Facebooked and start harassing strangers into being your 'friends' unless you wanted to be a hardcore loser for the rest of your life? No, of course not.

"Who’s going to put me to work?" some poor sod tells the New York Times. "Where’s the work at? It’s just a great big black hole."

And what about the broken sprinkler? I found a real stub wrench, also not made in the US (it came from Mexico), and fixed it. Then the neighbor ran over it again.

Predator state security.


Blogger Bernadette said...

Nice article DD. And hold onto your hat because Brand of the Free is another company making quality American made organic t-shirts.
Check 'em out,

11:04 AM  

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