I had a thought

It was a great thought then I forgot what it was.

But anyway I have this

When Lisa Norris was a kid in Cookeville, Tennessee, her father worked at Acme Boots, and that plant and her childhood were intertwined. One of her earliest memories is of wandering around the factory among bins of leather, breathing in the smell of the well-​oiled wood floors. Then the boot plant went to Mexico and her dad landed at Wrangler, which makes jeans, and then Red Kap, which makes workwear, and rarely ever again did he stay at a job for more than eighteen months. Each time, the plant would downsize or shutter, the jobs would cross the border, and he’d have to start all over again.

During the current recovery, productivity growth hasn’t even resulted in increased hiring; rather, it has occurred in concert with massive layoffs and record long-​term unemployment. “U.S. employers cut jobs pitilessly” during the recession, noted a typical story from the Associated Press. “Yet after shrinking payrolls, many companies found they could produce just as much with fewer workers.” The result has been a recovery marked by increased productivity and record corporate profits, but with catastrophically low employment growth. Yet economists and pundits continue to chew over our “jobless recovery” as if it were an anomaly.


For something so vital to the future of the US economy, there’s disturbingly little data collected about plant closings and offshoring, let alone analysis of what goes into these decisions. Corporate annual reports and SEC filings are silent about the logic behind closings. Philips’s 2010 SEC filings, for example, reveal nothing about why the firm offshored the Sparta plant, or the many other North American plants it has shuttered, beyond a brief reference to “initiatives to structurally reduce our overall cost structure” and “transferring technologies to low-​cost countries.” WARN notices, required by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act from firms before they make mass layoffs, only contain numbers of jobs lost, not the thinking behind them, and are arduous to examine because they’re filed state by state. Until the 2013 sequester, the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled them but only published aggregate data that lumped offshoring in with temporary layoffs. As the SEC does not require firms to break down their employee numbers by nation, multinationals, like Philips, increasingly provide only global or regional numbers in their public filings. American multinationals are required to report their total employees here and abroad to the Commerce Department each year, but the aggregate data made publicly available provides only a rough hint as to the scale of offshoring-​and, again, nothing whatsoever about the thinking behind it. A 2010 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found that more Americans-​86 percent-​blamed offshoring for the struggling economy than any other cause. And yet the Department of Labor tracks offshoring numbers only to the extent that laid-​off workers petition for “trade-​affected” status, which entitles them to training grants. Since few nonunion workers know to do this, the DOL numbers are definitely an undercount. Yet in 2010, the most recent data available, such petitions represented 287,000 offshored jobs, the equivalent of a thousand factories like the one in Sparta.


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