Bush’s flippy economist

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If you happen to be passing by your favorite McDonald’s restaurant anytime soon and you see a row of smokestacks replacing the golden arches, don’t fret. I have it on good authority that McDonald’s is now manufacturing its hamburgers and fries.

By now you may have heard that the Bush administration’s chief economist Gregory Mankiw, who serves as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said that jobs at fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Burger King, which currently are classified as service industry jobs, should be reclassified as manufacturing jobs. He actually offered this opinion in the annual Economic Report of the President, which was released last month.

I thought that comparing the construction of a Big Mac to the construction of a Ford Taurus was interesting, so I asked a buddy of mine who has actually worked in a number of factories whether he thought there was much similarity. In all fairness it must be said that Ken has never worked at a McDonald’s, but he has on occasion ordered a burger and fries and witnessed first-hand how his meal was being manufactured.

“There is no comparison,” he said abruptly, as if that much should be obvious to any idiot who has evolved far enough to walk upright.

But knowing Ken as I do, I knew he just needed to get warmed up as he tossed the whole matter around inside his head. We talked over a few other issues for a few minutes, got caught up on some things, and then he started to boil over.

“What a joke. How dare he? Of all the unmitigated gall.”

But then came what I consider to be the best line I’ve ever heard to describe how I believe any thinking person should view the issue.

“It’s so monumentally absurd that it doesn’t even rise to the level of insulting my intelligence.”

I knew I could count on Ken to put this whole deal in perspective.

Later, after my conversation with Ken, I decided to take a drive over to the McDonald’s on the corner of Mack and Conner. As a matter of fact, it is in the east side neighborhood that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, during his 2004 State of the City address, said he wants to virtually rebuild from the ground up with new and better homes and other amenities. We’ll see how that works out — hopefully, as well as the mayor says it will — but currently that area is a pretty tough stretch of earth.

Right across the street from this McDonald’s is the ThyssenKrupp Budd Detroit plant, which is located next to the DaimlerChrysler Jefferson North Assembly plant. ThyssenKrupp Budd — which has been in Detroit since the 1920s, though originally just as Budd — specializes in stamping and assembling body components for cars and trucks. The company has always had a close relationship with Ford and began supplying the company with steel bodies, wheels and other parts nearly 80 years ago. Today Budd supplies parts for the Ford Explorer and the Thunderbird. Budd supplied many exterior body parts for the original Thunderbird in 1955.

As for the Daimler Chrysler facility, it is a $750 million, 2.6 million-square-foot operation constructed in 1998 that has the capacity to produce 1,336 Jeep Cherokees per day and employs more than 4,000 people who work in three shifts, according to an online document provided by the Detroit Empowerment Zone.

In other words, they actually build — manufacture — things at these two facilities.

It was lunchtime and busy at McDonald’s when I stopped by, so I called back for comments. I eventually reached a manager willing to talk, although not for attribution, which was more than I can say for the official flacks in the national office. Anyway, the gentleman did share his views that, yes indeed, from his firsthand perspective, McDonald’s jobs are customer service jobs, not manufacturing jobs; the jobs entail no heavy lifting and bear no resemblance whatsoever to the jobs held by those autoworkers who he says frequently come there for lunch.

Later I talked with Joe Walker, who is the vice president of UAW Local 7, located right across the street from DaimlerChrysler. Walker has 30 years in with DaimlerChrysler, and scoffs at the idea that there could be any comparison between what he has done for three decades compared to the McDonald’s workers right down the street.

“I don’t think working at McDonald’s is in any way similar to working at a manufacturing plant,” he said. “No, ain’t no similarity. That’s why they make what they make and we make what we make. If that was the case [that McDonald’s employees were doing the same type of work] then they wouldn’t be making so much less than what we make.”

You can raise a family with a manufacturing job, but try feeding the kids and paying the mortgage flipping burgers.

Before going any further, I need to make it absolutely clear that I am not in any way whatsoever denigrating anybody who works at that McDonald’s or anyone who has ever worked at a McDonald’s or a fast food restaurant of any kind anywhere in the United States or abroad. OK? This is important, because I don’t want to hear from anyone who mistakenly gets the idea that I’m poking fun at fast-food workers as somehow being lesser forms of life than those who make auto parts for a living. That would be wrong, and it would also be missing the point.

The point, as Newsday’s James Toedtman wrote in a March 2 article, is that the Bush administration has seen the disappearance of 2.6 million manufacturing jobs since January 2001, which would easily explain why he wants to boost the numbers. It won’t add jobs to this embarrassing jobless recovery, but at least it will make the jobs that are there look better. And if Bush doesn’t find a way to look like he’s doing something about blue-collar jobs in particular, then he will have one hell of a time with the manufacturing states such as Michigan.

Not surprisingly, The Amazing Mr. Mankiw, who says flipping burgers and building auto parts are similar, is the same gentleman who got into trouble last month with members of his own party for saying that “Outsourcing is just a new way of doing international trade. … More things are tradable than were tradable in the past and that’s a good thing.”

Later, in his report to the president, Mankiw said that “When a good or service is produced more cheaply abroad, it makes more sense to import it than make or provide it domestically.”

This kind of sick and twisted “voodoo economics” calculus adds up to the number one reason why Bush has got to go. Exporting this entire administration to a location far removed from Capitol Hill would make the most sense of all.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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