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Posted by Thomas Shevory at 2:34PM   |  4 comments
Light Bulb

Thomas Shevory, Ithaca College

President Obama recently visited a General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York. Schenectady, which was once known as the “electric city,” because it was the original home of GE, has fallen on hard times over the decades.  More than once I have driven through it on my way to points north and have seen the huge empty parking lots that once held the vehicles of the plant’s employees.

The President seemed to have a number of purposes for the trip.  He used it to announce that Jeffrey Emmelt, CEO of GE, would head up his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.  This move has been widely viewed as an offering to the business community which, for reasons that are not entirely clear, apparently believes that Obama has been hostile its interests.  The President also wanted to feature GE as a company that has reverse-outsourced and brought employment back to the U.S. from overseas. He also wanted to showcase the vitality of the green economy. Specifically, the President visited GE’s new battery plant, which, when it goes into production later this year, will manufacture nickel-sodium batteries, the kind used in electric cars. 

But how meaningful was the visit after all?  New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was quite critical of the President, especially in terms of his invoking of the concept of “competitiveness” as the centerpiece of his economic policy.  Krugman notes that, for all the talk of GE and American jobs, half of its workforce is overseas and more than half of its profits are derived from the financial sector.

On the other hand, I think it is significant that Obama went to a place like Schenectady.  The last sitting President to drive through the city was John F. Kennedy.  And the last President to speak there was Harry Truman (from the back of a train). It would impossible to imagine either of the Bushes going there, or even Clinton for that matter, all of whom focused their rhetoric and their policies on free trade, and none of whom seemed to care much at all about the manufacturing sector.  In fact, there hasn’t been a President as interested in American manufacturing  as Obama seems to be since Lyndon Johnson, or maybe Harry Truman.  Whether interest gets translated into tangible policies is, however, another matter entirely.

Since the visit, the New York Times has reported that China is fast outstripping the capacity of American and European societies to invest in green and energy saving technologies.  The GE plant seems like a pretty modest enterprise compared to the more than 50  billion dollars that the Chinese are now investing in that sector.  The administration’s response has been to challenge the Chinese in international tribunals as in violation of free trade regimes.  But this seems unlikely to have much effect.  What the U.S. should be doing is actively investing in that sector.  The GE battery plant, for example, was not simply a creature of the free market, but rather resulted from a partnership between the company and the state of New York. 

It’s worth noting that the President did not take a trip down to the Hudson River while in the city. If he had, he would have been able to see the site of one of the worst freshwater chemical contaminations in American history.  General Electric, in its previous incarnation as a “brown” industry, had dumped PCBs there over the course of many decades. The result was a 200 mile stretch of contamination. The company then spent years fighting New York and the EPA over a cleanup plan.  The contamination itself would not, of course, have been visible, since it is covered by tons of water and muck, a legacy of America’s last industrial revolution.

 


4 Comments

I am from Schenectady and I can say with confidence that even if the president's visit to our GE plant does not make a wide impact in the future of our city or the economy it was still worth the time he took out of his busy schedule. Obama is looking ahead and trying to encourage competitive markets with other countries. What is the harm in that? Obama is encouraging businesses like GE to bring employment back to the U.S. With unemployment at record rates since the Great Depression, our country could use some optimism. He is doing something about the current state of the economy. In order for the United States to continue to be the great super power that it is today we can not afford to slack off and become less competitive in the global market. Especially since China is continuing to come closer to surpassing many Western Capitalistic countries. If China is already investing way more capital into green and energy saving technologies, then the U.S. clearly needs to step their game up. There is no harm in trying, but there is harm in accepting defeat before it even happens.

As for the contamination of the Hudson River, Obama probably did not visit the Hudson River due to the fact that this is not a tragedy unique to Schenectady. Polluted waters exist in numerous areas all over the country and all over the world. In a world where many societies revolve around Capitalistic enterprises no matter what the cost, the available freshwater on our planet amounts to less than one percent of all water. The remaining water is either frozen in the ice caps, polluted, or seawater.

Another reason that Obama's trip to Schenectady was worthwhile is because change does not happen all at once. It takes time, energy, people and money. As the president he has the power to instill optimism in the citizens of our nation. This optimism can help inspire others to take action. This is very similar to the effects of documentary film making. There might be an issue that the public is uneducated about, but once they see a film about the problems indirectly effecting civilian life they might be prompted to take action. Take several films regarding the war in Iraq for example. The films "Evil Series," "Fallujah," and "Iraq in Fragments" all uncover various aspects of the conflict with Iraq. This aspects include events such as Bush's State of the Union address which pushed us to invade Iraq, the conditions Iraqis have to live in while displaced from their homes in camps, war crimes, and the effects that the war in Iraq is having on the youth and their families. Learning about these aspects of the war might inspire individuals to take the initiative to travel to Iraq to report or volunteer for the good of the citizens residing there. Every person that helps can make a difference. So even if Obama's trip to Schenectady inspires one person, one sector of GE, or one other business to continue with their work with green energy and bringing jobs back to the U.S. I believe it would have been worth the visit.

Why is it that Americans hold this credo to be the biggest and best? Karla stresses in her blog that, "in order for the United States to continue to be the great super power that it is today we can not afford to slack off and become less competitive in the global market." Maybe less competition overseas and more attention within our own failing country, with unemployment percentages wavering on dire. I think Paul Krugman makes a case in pointing out the reality of the situation. We need more jobs here, and we need our concentration here. Competition should not be the focus of our president's economic policy, building it up in a stable, solid way at home should. The mind set that "the U.S. clearly needs to step their game up" and that "there is harm in accepting defeat before it even happens" is one that forces America to stretch its resources beyond what is comfortable. The American public needs to let go of this delusion that the U.S. is right in being a relatively imperial influence, and that it can even sustain this position for much longer.

Kaela your taking what I said out of context. The main point of my argument was that, "Obama is encouraging business like GE to bring employment back to the U.S. With unemployment at record rates since the Great Depression, our country could use some optimism." I completely agree with you. I, however, think that while the U.S. is creating local employment opportunities it should aim to remain competitive. In order to be economically successful in a globally Capitalistic market one needs to meet certain standards of production. Without competition with other nations there we would not have anywhere to export our services and goods to. In order to sell the goods and services that the U.S. is producing, and would like to see continue to grow, we need to remain on top with other nations so we can encourage trade. A huge portion of our economy relies on our relationship with other countries and our ability to produce relatively inexpensive products that provide a better dollar value than competing nations. To say that competition, "...should not be the focus of our president's economic policy" is simply not reasonable. It has to remain a key area of focus while creating more jobs and stability at home. The two are interrelated.

I too am from the greater Capital District area; I live just down the Hudson River in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Both of my parents have worked for General Electric; first for Aircraft, then Plastics, my father worked for Environmental for a while and now is with their Healthcare Systems based right next to Schenectady. Pittsfield, Massachusetts similarly has been effected by the downfall of the GE manufacturing industry--what was once a plastic manufacturing up which provided over 40,000 locals with jobs is now left with wastelands of abandoned factories. Although I think it was smart for Obama to visit a place like Schenectady (in order to instill some sort of optimistic feeling), I think his strategies of "yes we can!" are getting a little too redundant. In my opinion, the more he does things like that the less genuine he positions himself and the less of an impact he has. In the case of Schenectady, I think this event sort of reinforces my opinion.



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