A few years ago, a great deal of discussion was generated in the "business community" about a paper someone wrote which asked, "Does Information Technology Matter?" I am not sure about the details of that discussion, but I think it is time that we ask the same question about engineering. Or worse yet, we now need to ask, "Does Industry Matter?
Well, I believe the answer depends on the scope of the discussion. If the scope of the discussion is solving the needs of mankind in the 21st Century, I would say industry and engineering does matter. If the scope of discussion is enabling mankind to explore, understand, and utilize the fabulous universe that surrounds us, again I would say that the answer is yes, industry and engineering does matter. However, if the scope of the discussion is satisfying CEO's, investors, and the DemoRepublicats in the US government, then I am afraid that industry and engineering does not matter any more. So, unfortunately, in the real, day-to-day world most of us find ourselves, we don't matter.
Two developments of the last few decades clearly indicate that our "leaders" care little for us and what we do. These developments were "free trade" and "outsourcing". Of course, these concepts are shrouded in the smoke that rises from the incense-burning of the Federal Reserve druids. And, mortals that actually contemplate whether these concepts are good policy are subjected to ridicule from the MBA brotherhood. But, it is undeniable that these immaturely-implemented concepts ensure that what engineers do (and what mechanical engineers do in particular) will soon evaporate in the US. It may be "fighting progress" to want to keep manufacturing and related arts in the United States, but what if I like building cars? Or trains? Or planes? Or rockets? Or cranes? Am I stupid for wanting to do work on something I can actually see and touch? Staring at piles of coins, bills, and stock certificates just does not "do it" for me.
More importantly, what if in order for a nation to be great it MUST not only build stuff itself, but it has to be the best in the world at it? Certainly the history of the last few centuries shows that the most industrially advanced nations are the most great (at least in the economic and political sense). Where does that leave the concepts of "free trade" or "outsourcing"? These concepts are entirely intended to take away our industrial base. So since our "leaders" are wise in the ways of politics and economics, I can only conclude that they knew this was going to happen, and that they simply don't want us to be great any more. Even better for them, making the public think industry does not matter is probably the most efficient way for them to make sure we are unable to threaten their inflated sense of importance based on investors making a quick buck (as opposed to the old days when greatness was associated with doing great things).
For fun, let's assume (by some miracle) that the US government did care about our industrial "base". How exactly does "free trade" harm it? It's very simple. If we have no tariffs or other politically motivated barriers to restrict the flow of goods from poor or undemocratic nations, then eventually everything will be built over there. In the Peoples Republic of the Walmart Supply Chain’ for instance, there is no EPA, no OSHA, no product liability, no lawsuits, no trial-by-jury-of-your-peers, no rule of law, no presumption of innocence, no freedom to preach in the village square, no popular elections, no NLRB, no Civil Rights Act of 1965, no EEOC, no Family Leave Act, no right to strike. In short, there is no overhead cost at all (unless you want to factor in bribes or the extra business trips to "taste" the night-life in Bangkok). There is simply no way for us to compete with state-owned entities that make sure no Yankee can even decipher "who owns what".
And, thanks to longshoremen and teamsters that won't honor their labor union brothers and sisters heading for unemployment lines in Detroit, trillions of pounds of products are swiftly taken from Korean-made and French-made ships to our doorsteps each and every day.
It's enough to make me wish for the days when quality was "job one". In fact, it now looks like the whole quality "craze" was just a diversionary tactic while the auctioneers sized up our factories for liquidators. The fastest growing car sales are from Korean (and soon Chinese) manufacturers that have documented quality issues, so I guess quality is more like "job three" (after price and making fashion statements). Its funny how CEO's demand six sigma quality from their US employees, but buy cheap, low quality stuff at the drop of a hat if it comes from an "up and coming" Asian country. After all, you don''t want to be the only CEO at the club whose not "in on" the latest nation-based procurement price momentum vector.
Then again, maybe I am wrong. Let's just say that "free trade" eventually produces a trade surplus for the US as the other nation's costs rise as their living standard rises to meet ours. Does anybody know of an example where this actually happened? Please show me one single solitary example of this happening in the last 20 years based on a merchandise trade balance between the US and one former "third world" nation with more than 25 million in population. Just one, please.
For even more fun, let''s actually assume that "free trade" is a way to create a global prosperity-delivery machine that favors less developed nations with efficient (although dangerous) factories, and it favors the US with "high value added" activities such as finance, marketing, "brand" protection, and even engineering. Gotcha! Here comes outsourcing. So now even doing this "fun stuff" is going to be shipped out. Ask the CEO of IBM, GE, or HP if it can compete without using engineers from the former Soviet bloc or that large Asian sub-continent with tons of trade barriers to ensure local technology development? Come to think of it, China which is still Communist in every way politically is a much, much more important economic partner to the US than Russia which threw off the terrible, Satanic Communism. I wonder if Russia will regret that move, thanks to our greed-infested, unfettered raw capitalism.
Against these so-called "market forces" from the DemoRepublicats, I can only imagine one means of resisting and keeping at least a few cool jobs in the US. This would be intellectual property rights. Didn't the great global trade agreements (WTO, GATT, etc.) offer us great strides in this area? Countries will now respect our patent-type stuff. If I now come up with an amazing new invention that saves consumers tons of money, they will actually buy my expensive US product. All will be well again.
Sounds good, but there is no such thing as intellectual property rights in the very large socialist country West of Japan (as I was personally told by a patent attorney). Don't forget, there's no rule of law, no lawsuits, and no "transparency" there. You may get a non-disclosure agreement or a non-compete clause from Company A in that Asian place, but if all the people in Company A leave to form Company B, they can do anything they want, and the WTO means nothing. In fact, even intellectual property rights in the US do not prevent this trade secret stealing. I believe I am bound not to disclose trade secrets from one employer to the next based on something called the UCC or United Commercial Code (agreed to by the 50 state governments). This has nothing to do with intellectual property rights. Indeed, patents (which I normally think of as intellectual property rights) are a means to actually "disclose" inventions, not hide them. Do you think there is a UCC in Asia? If so, based on what evidence? If it is violated, what penalties are assessed?
Finally, even if patent-type laws did apply over there, there's more bad news. Governments don't enforce patent laws. You have to do it. You have to find infringement. You have to take the bad guys to court yourself. Do you think you are going to get on that Airbus European-made plane in New York City, get off in Shanghai, and walk into some lawyer's office and press a case against the lawyer's brother's crane company for patent infringement? I don't think so.