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Jeff Ackerman: We brought this economic mess upon ourselves

I never thought I’d see the day when China is telling us how to run our country, which may actually be their country soon if we don’t stop putting Made In China labels on our goods and services.

In fact, anyone else notice that a Chinese company was awarded a $250 million contract to re-build a section of the Bay Bridge? According to a recent report on that contract, a Shanghai company employed as many as 2,500 workers on the project, including 1,000 welders, who gained U.S. qualifications specifically for the work. In total, it used 43,000 tons of steel on the project. Another Chinese company, Shanghai Pujiang Cable Co. made the 1-mile main cable for the bridge.

There was a time this country was fully capable of building its own bridges with its own steel, thank you very much. We did a pretty good job with the original Bay Bridge and across the bay on the Golden Gate Bridge. Hoover Dam still works pretty well and the Empire State Building is still standing. We even put a few men on the moon for good measure.

So why, with millions of Americans out of work (including thousands of welders) did we have to go all the way to China to get our bridge fixed?

Oh … I know. The Chinese company only paid its workers $12 per day and they worked them from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. And the Chinese steel mills don’t have to worry about those OSHA or EPA rules designed to protect lives and the planet those lives inhabit.

So Caltrans – with our money – is essentially exploiting Chinese laborers in order to save money at the expense of an unemployed U.S. labor market that our own government regulators created.

And when the bridge is done we’ll get to pay the equivalent of a day’s pay in China to cross it.

How did it all come down to … this? How did our credit rating drop too low to qualify for a used car loan?

Let’s start with the rules and regulations. Federal, state and local governments have regulated most U.S. companies to death, driving up the cost of production to the point where it is far cheaper to make things in China, where companies are not bound by the same environmental and labor laws.

We don’t seem to have a problem with the pollution, or slave labor, so long as it happens outside our borders.

And unions haven’t helped themselves much, often bleeding the companies to the point where they can’t compete in a global marketplace. We need look no further than the U.S. auto industry to see evidence of that.

We also love our gold, silver and oil, so long as it comes from mines and rigs sitting outside our borders. We’re sitting on maybe 2 million ounces of gold right here in the Gold Country – at $1,600 per ounce – but can’t get it. Never mind that this community was built on the backs of miners.

We would rather go broke, sit home and collect government checks, which might explain why a Washington state apple farmer couldn’t find Americans willing to pick apples after immigration agents deported most of his Mexican pickers. No matter that he was offering minimum wage in a county with double-digit unemployment. Who needs to pick apples for minimum wages when you can make almost as much staying home?

Which is why China may be providing us with a little financial advice of late. Perhaps the Chinese are wondering why we’d want to be like Greece, a country whose people thought they were entitled to more than the taxpayers could afford to provide.

I found this paragraph from a Spiegel International Online story that pretty much sums it up: “Greece has yet to break its old habits. Much-needed reforms are overdue, government bureaucracy is bloated and corrupt, and the country continues to live beyond its means. Even though the national pension funds are chronically short of cash, female public employees with school-age children are allowed to retire at the age of 50.”

That sounds a lot like California.

Evident in Monday’s 600-plus-point drop, Wall Street didn’t react too well to the recent Washington D.C. hug fest that temporarily kept our country from bankruptcy. Anyone who has ever taken an Economics 101 class will tell you that all they did was kick the tin can down the road for another year or two. They fixed nothing. When we woke up in the morning, government was just as big as it was when we went to bed … in our Made In China pajamas.

The problem is, we’re out of ammunition and the monster is still coming. There is no more bailout money left in the piggy bank and the economy is still on the brink of something most of us have never seen before.

Closer to home, our elected officials are dealing with their own budget messes, which means making very tough and often unpopular decisions. The kind of decisions they refuse to make in D.C. and Sacramento. We need to support those elected officials who have the stomach to make those tough decisions and get rid of the ones who don’t.

Some of those people are facing a recall election in Wisconsin today. They saw the financial mess that cheese capital was in and tried to fix it, drawing the wrath of the special interest groups that have since poured tens of millions of dollars into the recall elections. They must believe that Wisconsin’s problems are nothing that a tax hike … or two … or three … can’t fix. But the people who must pay those tax bills – including companies that cannot compete with the likes of China – are already struggling to make ends meet.

So how do we turn it around? The best way would be to let the whole damned thing collapse and start over. Begin with one simple question: If we rebuilt this machine from scratch would it look like this? If the answer is yes, we have bigger problems than I thought.

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299, jackerman@theunion.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.