You can tell a lot about a nation by its trading activities, and what goes on at the international seaports where cargo ships of all kinds come and go – the important ports of call of a nation.


Take the United States; today, there are international seaports on all coasts plus those on inland waterways.  There used to be lots more shiploads of manufactured goods stamped “Made in the USA” leaving these seaports, loaded in the holds or on the decks in containers.


After World War II, with war-torn Europe and Japan in ruins, the USA accounted for 50 percent of all world trade.  We helped our former enemies – Germany and most of Western Europe – rebuild through the Marshall Plan, named for former commander of US forces and then secretary of state, (General) George Marshall.  It was one of the most magnanimous gestures of this nation, one all Americans can be proud of.  We fought in WW II not to conquer, not for land, but to assure the freedom of millions of people – and their descendants.


Continued global peace and harmony among nations depends on the free flow of trade – flows of money, hard goods, farm products, intellectual property, science, people, ideas, and more.  With world trade greatly expanded in the 63 years since WW II ended, the US still accounts for about a quarter of the total.


The US could once boast of dominance in some important areas – think of Detroit’s auto products that rolled out of factories in the US and also in England, Germany, and many other countries, and shipped to many foreign ports.  Once upon a time, Ford Motor Company’s products accounted for either one of every two cars on the road everywhere (or, by some accounts, one-in-three). Everywhere in the world!  And GM – the largest industrial company in the USA in the postwar years, a titan among even the biggest of the country’s industrial giants, with its dazzling array of popular brands and array of products.


Sad to see the CEOs of the auto giants in Congressional hearings, sitting all in a row, seeking billions from Uncle Sam to stay alive.  In the same newspaper with the reports on the auto leaders’ plight, something caught my eye.


This was a report from the west coast of the US – home of those sprawling, automated complexes where countless cargo ships leaving the Far East now end up. Seems many of these foreign made autos are now piling up on the docks.  So many, the foreign carmakers are renting space until the cars move off the docks to local dealers.


And outbound cargo is not moving as well.  American-made goods for foreign markets, right?  No – the back up involves American consumption.  Waste.  Mostly recycled cardboard for Asian manufacturers – to ship their consumer and other goods to the United States.  (The cardboard is not needed due to the Chinese factory slowdowns as American consumers tighten their budgets.)


The largest volume of “things” moving from the United States to foreign markets in the Pacific Basin via the huge seaport of Long Beach, California are … recycled cardboard and paper products for China’s manufacturing plant.   Not American-made cars.


Perhaps we need to re-think some of the advantages of having a larger manufacturing base in the United States — especially as the nation gropes for solutions to our current financial crisis.


This is not saying we need to stop buying foreign made goods – that would not work either short or long term.  But should we keep shipping jobs to foreign lands? First it was tens of thousands, and then flows of millions of good manufacturing jobs – from the USA to foreign shores.  Every American manufacturing job has a positive ripple effect of 4-to-1 or 5-to-1 – one manufacturing job creating four or more jobs at local stores, in banking, at other manufacturing plants, and in services industries of all kind.  Manufacturing jobs typically pay higher salaries that permit workers to buy the goods manufactured by other workers.   And many – too many – are never coming back.


We have been hollowing out American industry.


A century ago Henry Ford was hailed a genius in a very important aspect of the still young US manufacturing industry– he figured out how to make products that could be bought by the workers making them, and he made the system work.  So well, in fact, that we would say Mr. Ford put Americans in cars and on the roads, and then exported Ford cars to every corner of the globe.


And now…as the powers-with-the-federal-purse strings noodle on how – or even whether to – save Detroit jobs, let’s think about the biggest things leaving US seaports.  Waste.  America’s cast-off waste, recycled and shipped to foreign factories to use to pack still more consumer goods to ship to US retailers.


Eventually, one might ask, with fewer and fewer good paying US jobs (and diminishing real disposable  income) – could we reach a point where there are too few retail buyers  resulting in lost sales taxes for local government?  Not enough income taxes for the federal coffers?  Far fetched?  Maybe.  But I would feel better some day seeing more Ford, Chrysler and GM vehicles muscling aside waiting ship containers of … American waste.  Cars with far better clean technology features than are on the road today, greener cars, vehicles with highly-desirable motive power that can compete with the hybrids coming from Asia.  The Congress hasalready set aside $25 billion for the Big 3 to tackle such innovative solutions.


Let’s fill up those ships returning to Asian markets with US manufacturers’ cars and we’ll feel a lot more optimistic about the US economy.