Wednesday, March 17, 2010

This blog has moved

This blog is now located at
You will be automatically redirected in 30 seconds, or you may click here.

For feed subscribers, please update your feed subscriptions to


The Wall Street Journal reported last weekend that Caterpillar is the latest American producer to shift production from abroad back to the United States. Cat’s new US plant -- at a location still to be decided --.will manufacture excavators formally produced in Japan and an older plant in Aurora, Illinois. The result could be a tripling of domestic production, while the Japan plant would have extra capacity to ship to Asian markets.

Cat is not alone. The Journal reminded us that General Electric had announced last year it was moving production of water heaters from China to Louisville, Kentucky and that U.S. Block Windows had decided to move all its China production to Pensacola, Florida.

From our own experience, we know of other cases of precision parts work coming back home for quality reasons. Even some woolen apparel production is being “on-shored.” Surely there are scores of other examples that have received less attention.

The Journal drew the following conclusion: “After a decade of rapid globalization, economists say companies are seeing disadvantages of offshore production, including shipping costs, complicated logistics, and quality issues. Political unrest and theft of intellectual property pose additional risks.”

These encouraging signs for American manufacturing are driven essentially by market forces and the shortcomings of regulatory systems abroad. Certainly, they are far too limited to constitute a reversal of the disastrous exodus of manufacturing output that has helped to drive the trade deficit and the accompanying foreign debt. Moreover, there’s no reason to believe that these trends will continue long enough to achieve that result without a disastrous fall in the dollar against floating currencies with the attendant inflation and destruction of wealth.

Imagine what could be done if the United States of America could get its collective act together and define a national economic policy that favored domestic production and a radical increase in net exports. The key elements would include: decisive action to counteract the protracted undervaluation of foreign currencies against the dollar; a tax system that rewarded investors for building new plant and equipment in the US; an ambitious program to build a national infrastructure – roads, bridges, waterways, broadband, and power distribution – worthy of a global leader; and the vigorous enforcement of our rights under international agreements and domestic statutes to achieve “free and fair trade with free and fair traders” as Ronald Reagan once defined his trade policy of reciprocity.

The growing list of on-shoring operations underscores the basic truth that American industry is fundamentally competitive. We have few obsolete or high-cost producers; they have long since been driven out by competition both international and domestic. What ails us is our public policy. That can and should be fixed without further delay.

Charles Blum

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Electrifying our National Strategy

Warren Buffett predicts that we’ll all be driving electric vehicles (EVs) in 20 years. The Oracle of Omaha knows a thing or two about sound investments and he’s placing his bets on EVs. It makes economic, environmental and energetic sense. What doesn’t make sense is the dismal record of Buffett’s native land to capitalize on this insight.

Electric vehicles exceed the energy efficiency, environmental, and economic virtues of their conventional counterparts. Internal combustion engines have less than half the 95% efficiency rate of EV motors. The latter are also less carbon intensive: even if the electric grid that charged EVs were entirely coal-powered, EVs would still emit less carbon emissions than petroleum-burning cars. EVs are consumer friendly, requiring less maintenance and sporting a significantly lower cost of ownership for budget conscious Americans. Beyond the cost benefits of electricity over gasoline, EVs, like solid-state computer drives, have fewer moving parts and hence less need for service and repair. At a more macro level, EVs do not require the same massive infrastructural support as liquid fuels. More public EV plugs will be needed, but a home garage plug will suffice for the charging needs of most commuters. Moreover, when combined with a smart grid EVs might serve as energy reservoirs that could be tapped during peak electricity demand. Finally, EVs can empower America to make significant headway in weaning itself off its oil addiction. Indeed, transportation accounts for over two thirds of total U.S. oil consumption.

In 2008, Berkshire Hathaway made its foray into the EV market by investing $232 million in 2008 for a 10% share of BYD, China’s number one battery and electric car company. That share is now worth almost $2 billion. Berkshire’s record gains from this investment flow from BYD’s innovations in the EV industry, including a breakthrough in lithium ion ferrous phosphate technology and a plan to produce the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid.

BYD’s (and Buffet’s) good fortunes are also a sign that China is doing something right: it is thinking big about bold investments in EVs. The Chinese government has made “independent innovation” in the EV industry a national goal. By 2011, Beijing plans to invest $1.5 billion dollars in EV R&D, to convert entire government and taxi fleets into EVs, and to incentivize local government and individual EV purchases through rebates and tax credits of more than $7,000 per passenger vehicle and up to $86,000 for trucks and buses. The Chinese government wants its domestic manufacturers to produce half a million EVs by the end of next year to secure China’s place as a leading EV producer and exporter.

The U.S. goal is strikingly less ambitious. President Obama has committed $2.4 billion in stimulus funding for EV and battery R&D to help pave the way for domestic production of 1 million EVs by 2015 (0.5% of our vehicle fleet). In the 1990s, when Chevy produced its S-10EV, GM its EV1, and Ford its Ranger EV, the U.S. seemed poised to dominate the EV market for years to come. Fifteen years and an $80 billion bailout later, the Chinese have picked up where America left off and are happily eating GM’s lunch.

There is hope for American producers and the Obama administration though. It’s not too late to develop and implement a comprehensive energy strategy that places 21st Century technologies like smart energy grids and EVs where they rightfully belong. Washington has to recognize that the electric stakes are high. Fortunately, there are rays of hope coming from the Department of Energy, which has granted Tesla almost half a billion dollars in loans to develop a mass-market version of its pricey high-tech all-electric Roadster sports car. Let’s hope this is a first step for the U.S. auto industry towards regaining a competitive edge in the EV market. After all, the U.S. shouldn’t trade its dependence on foreign oil for one on foreign green technology.

Carolyn Avery