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Bill Barth
America used to make things - now Americans make deals!
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   David rode Harleys and built Chevrolets. It doesn’t get any more American than that.
   I often think of my friend, who died an untimely and difficult death last fall, a victim of lung cancer. Well, really, he was a victim of Marlboro Lights accompanied by liberal doses of Korbel brandy and Old Style beer.
   It’s kind of a Wisconsin thing.
   David and I might not have seemed the types to become natural friends. David wore coveralls and built machines with his hands. I wear a tie and build word images with my mind.
   But we discovered common ground, a quarter century ago, in golf and motorcycles and that all-but-official state beverage.
   There are a million reasons I miss David and wish he had, at some point, discovered the blessings of moderation in all things – though, of course, if he had, he wouldn’t have been David.
   But, for now, let’s just focus on this reason: How I would love to talk with him about what’s happening to the American economy.
   The doors of the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., where David built Chevy trucks, were locked on Dec. 23, 2008. And a fine Merry Christmas it was, to the last 1,200 employees. The factory once employed more than 7,000 American souls, building quintessential American dreams.
   In a particularly ironic twist, the only work continuing at the 3.5 million square foot factory occupies a small corner of the plant, where trucks for the Japanese manufacturer Isuzu are finished as part of a partnership with GM. The Isuzu contract soon will expire, and the Japanese brand will depart, too.
   David would like that part.
   You see, David never could understand why so many Americans have been seduced by foreign-made products. Cars and trucks from Japan. Clothing from China and Bangladesh. Computer equipment from South Korea.
   Didn’t Americans understand that in turning to goods manufactured in other countries, they were putting their friends and family and neighbors out of work? I seriously doubt David had ever heard of John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman; economic theory was not his thing. But he did wonder how, if the trends continued and factories kept closing, Americans would have money to buy the goods and services that drive economic activity.
   That brings to mind a phrase I came across a few weeks back, in a piece about this economic meltdown: “America used to make things. Now Americans make deals.”
   Those deals produce paper profits, and we’ve all been painfully reminded that paper profits can disappear faster than a bunny rabbit who hears the restless bear begin to growl. Stripped bare, the schemes and scams of the money traders are a decidedly weak foundation upon which to base the American economy.
   Instinctively, my pal David understood that. For generations America had been the envy of the world because we made more things than anybody else – great things, things people wanted, things they could touch and hold and drive and cherish.
   Guys like David, justifiably, were proud of that. Not everyone can be a computer programmer or an entrepreneur or, even, a writer. But there was a time when mechanically-oriented men with both a strong back and a strong work ethic could earn a comfortable middle-class living for themselves and their families. An America in which that is less possible, is surely a weaker America.
   I’ll always remember my friend, stepping off his gleaming polished Harley, adorned in the black leather jacket with the American flag and eagle across his back, covering a well-worn Chevy tee-shirt. Dave’s gone, but there are others like him. And, you know what, we let these American characters go extinct at our own peril.
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