Ro Khanna’s Entrepreneurial Nation

The title misleads, because the book is not about entrepreneurship but about the state of manufacturing in the US. Fortunately, the subtitle is more descriptive: “Why manufacturing is still key to America’s future.” Thinking about entrepreneurship in 2012, the first companies that come to mind are Google, Facebook or Amazon, who do no manufacturing, or Apple, which subcontracts it. Several of the executives described are in fact entrepreneurs, but you also encounter regular managers and fifth generation heirs running family businesses. I don’t blame the author for this, as I suspect the title was chosen by marketers who thought that entrepreneurship would sell better than manufacturing.

The author’s bio on the book jacket describes him as “former deputy assistant secretary of commerce,” a title that leaves you wondering what he was actually doing. You have to look up his LinkedIn profile to find out that his primary function was to boost exports of manufactured goods. Until then, he was an intellectual property lawyer. To his credit, he makes no claim to having any particular knowledge of manufacturing before he started. But he clearly fell in love with the subject, and a passion for it shows through in his writings.

The book contains facts, interpretations of these facts, and policy recommendations. Crisscrossing the country for the commerce department enabled the author to visit many companies and meet outstanding leaders in steel making, aeronautics, mining machinery, defense, and other manufacturing industries. I had not heard about many of them and learned from the author’s account of these visits.

The author quotes many sources, and his position gave him the opportunity to be tutored by industry icons like Andy Grove. Nonetheless, I find his analysis of the situation lacking in depth and originality. I agree with his fundamental point that the Federal Government of the US should have a policy about Manufacturing, and that it makes no sense to have a cabinet-level Secretary of Agriculture and no Secretary of Manufacturing when Manufacturing is a much larger component of the economy.
His argument that government’s involvement in manufacturing is a long American tradition is based on a report by Alexander Hamilton as Treasury Secretary in 1791 arguing in favor of it. Khanna quotes it many times, but makes no reference to the role played by Thomas Jefferson in launching the multi-decade effort to make interchangeable parts, that the embryonic private sector of his day would not have undertaken, but that gave birth to the machine-tool industry and became key to the emergence of mass production in the 20th century. But his key point is valid that the government has a 200-year tradition of pitching in where the private sector can’t or won’t.

One argument that Bill Clinton makes but Khanna doesn’t is that none of the advanced economies in the world have developed on pure laissez-faire. The US hasn’t, and neither have Japan, Germany, the UK, France, Italy, or Canada. The visible hand of government plays some role everywhere. The question is what that role should be. Just because the government of another country intervenes in the economy in a particular way doesn’t mean we should do it too. Khanna appears to have yet to meet a government program he doesn’t like; to him, they are all underfunded and their budgets should be increased, and I have to disagree on some of them.

He asserts, for example, that the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) is a great program that does not “pick winners and losers.” Through this program, the federal government has been subsidizing consulting firms in all 50 states to provide services at reduced rates to small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs). In so doing , the government may not pick among the recipients but it certainly does among providers. And the MEP program is run by NIST, the agency in charge of standards for weights and measures. It is run by managers who have never worked in factories and you wonder how they can select consultants. It is, however, exactly what NIST does, and, thereby, creates unfair competition to other consultants.

Khanna also makes the common confusion between having a strong manufacturing sector in the economy and having a large proportion of the work force involved in manufacturing. Most manufacturing jobs in the US today are still the kind of repetitive assembly line work that no child dreams of doing as a grown-up. The future is in the current minority of jobs that involves programming and maintaining machines. It is a slow transition that has been underway for decades and has already seen, for example, the number of employees needed in a steel mill drop by a factor of 10 in forty years. It still has a long way to go but the direction is clear. It is a process that moves like a glacier, not a tsunami, with the consequence that it can and should be planned for. The strong manufacturing sector of the future employs a small number of highly skilled people. The jobs are more desirable that traditional manufacturing jobs, but in much smaller numbers.

The book paints China as an enemy, at war with US manufacturing. But the Chinese I know are focused on pulling >1 billion people out of poverty, not putting Ohio machine shops out of business. We will do better if every way if they succeed and become consumers than if they stumble and China reverts to the chaos of 40 years ago. In a truly emerging economy, labor costs rise with the skills of the work force. As local companies develop their own intellectual property, they also become more sensitive to others’ and counterfeiting declines. Finally, as incomes rise, so does the demand for imports.

While GE’s reshoring of appliance production in a happy ending for Louisville, KY, the story makes you wonder what the executives had been thinking when they outsourced in the first place. Why did they wait until they had actually moved production to Mexico and China and wrecked Louisville before assessing the full economic consequences of these decisions?

The book is about success stories. In a context where so many are writing off the US manufacturing sector, Khanna wants to show how it can be successful, and it is understandable that he would not dwell on failures. One that he could not avoid, however, is Solyndra, because it is a case in which the government made a mistake, even if the mistake was made by a department other than the one Khanna worked for. He talks about “the lessons of Solyndra” but does not say much about what these lessons are. You shouldn’t overinvest, but you already knew that.