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Little steel monuments, big trade deficits



Published: Thu, June 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By SILVIO LACCETTI

KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

They display names like Hanjin, Yang-Ming, Maersk and China Lines.

They are steel-stacked columns visible in every American seaport. "They" are steel cargo containers, a staple of the international trade infrastructure.

Ninety-nine percent of these containers are made in China. No one knows how many there are, but estimates range in the millions. Their vertical storage piles fluctuate like tell-tale bar-graphs, evidence of our growing trade deficit and declining manufacturing economy. Containers arrive full of foreign cargo, but too many later go to storage lots because there is no U.S. export cargo to fill them for a return journey.

Indeed, these steel boxes are monuments to the new globalism that promises permanent U.S. trade shortfalls and the disappearance of our industrial economy.

The latest figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce are most discouraging. Our trade deficit rose to $56.96 billion in April -- the fourth largest on record. Take no comfort in this fact; the record of $60.12 billion was set in February, 2005! For the entire first quarter of this year, our current trade accounts deficit was $195 billion. Projections call for a $700 billion trade deficit for the entire year -- the highest in history.

I hope the government doesn't expect me to help pay for all of this. Maybe we could have a "Forgive U.S. Our Debts" concert series to do so.

Our manufacturing economy doesn't look very healthy either. In the last five years, America has lost 4 million blue-collar jobs. The percentage of workers in the manufacturing sector has dipped to about 12 percent of the workforce (from a 1960 high of 30 percent). The manufacturing sector percentage is the lowest it has been since the mid-19th century when the U.S. was an agricultural nation and the industrial revolution was just beginning to take off!

In today's increasingly outsourced service economy, too many white-collar workers want to take off from giving proper service to users, customers and clients.

Red ink

As America's international trade ledgers became increasingly drenched in red ink, the piles of steel containers began a skyward surge, becoming eyesores in places like Long Beach, Calif., and Newark, N.J. Several years ago, a county planner asked me to consider a student project on alternate uses for these steel containers, or "Hanjin widgets" as I shall call them. The idea was to make them useful, to get rid of the blight, and to do so in the most inexpensive fashion.

One ex-student (he transferred out of engineering) was particularly interested. Together we brainstormed like Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton of the "Honeymooners." Maybe these Hanjin widgets could be the key to a new business.

There were some Kramdenesque ideas generated. The student was keen on a plan to turn the steel boxes into inexpensive auto garages. It was a great idea, except that after driving the vehicle in, the driver could barely open the door enough to exit the car!

There were some better ideas of mine. One was to deploy the Hanjin widgets as bus shelters, especially in sparsely populated areas. Simultaneously, we conceived the idea of utilizing the Hanjin widgets as Little League dugouts.

I set up an appointment to discuss these matters in detail and to plan future steps. The student never showed up. I have never heard from him again.

Sometimes I have visions of an America dotted with little steel monuments, dugouts and bus shelters, made of unusual objects that look like some kind of widget.

Surplus containers

Very recently, in the wake of all the news about trade deficits, I revisited the whole issue of surplus containers. I had a most informative discussion with Urban Treuil, Plaquemines Port Harbor and terminal director in Louisiana's lower Mississippi Delta. As such, his port accepts the oil from the Gulf of Mexico oil drilling platforms. These platforms use retrofitted containers in a variety of ways: as bunk houses, crew quarters, galleys and equipment rooms, as connected units and as the foundation for heliports.

Urban pointed me to Con Global Industries of San Ramon, Calif. One of its businesses is retrofitting surplus steel containers. It has an amazing array of products and business is booming, of course. It doesn't make bus shelters or Little League dugouts -- not yet! But it can have my ideas and make more little steel monuments if it wishes.

However, I wish it more luck in its other businesses, because I would like to see the supply of these steel "widgets" vastly reduced. America needs a national trade policy that brings a more favorable balance of trade to our economy.

America needs a national manufacturing policy that restores "highest quality" competitive status to American products so that there will always be an international market for the best goods, our goods, manufactured by American workers.

Even Kramden and Norton can perceive these needs.

Can the U.S. Congress?

X Silvio Laccetti is a professor of humanities at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services




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