A plea for protectionism.
If you li ve long enough, you’ll be surprised how many objects you will see
behind glass in a museum that were once part of your everyday life. History
creeps up on us all.
Even so, I was not prepared for some of the exhibits
at Acre’s Treasures in the Walls museum. The place, set inside the old coastal
fortifications (there are still a few cannons nearby to scare off Napoleon’s
ghost should he care to revisit the place he unsuccessfully besieged in 1799),
is mostly devoted to old trades and professions that once formed the backbone of
the Haifa Bay area’s industrial and commercial life.
A leather goods
workshop, a tinsmith’s establishment, a smithy – these and others are recreated
more or less as they existed only a few decades ago, complete with tools and
products. They evoked in me nostalgia, but no sense of loss.
contents of nearby display cases gave me a start. They were full of locally
produced ceramics by the great names of the Israeli ceramics industry: Lapid,
Na’aman, Harsa. Some were decorative, but most were functional kitchenware of
the sort I still have at home. Evidently they had become collector’s items, and
A museum sign explained why. Yes, Acre had been the home of several factories producing high-quality ceramic goods and
employing hundreds of workers. But about 20 years ago, a tidal wave of imports
from the Far East struck Israel. These ceramics were no better, but cheaper. The
local factories, some of which were not well run, could not compete. In one
egregious case, a struggling concern was bought by a ceramics importer – the
factory closed soon after. Within a few years, a flourishing industry had more
or less vanished, undone not by technological progress, but by free trade and
We take pride, rightly, in Israel’s innovative
high-tech industries. But most people (there is no way to put this politely)
lack the skills and intelligence to work in them.
Still, in most
countries manufacturing industry offers such workers employment, opportunities
to suggest ideas and improvements, and the prospects of good wages. These
opportunities exist here (take a bow, successful industrialist Stef Wertheimer).
But there are not many. The sight of manual workers huddled round a pile of
burning tires as they protest a factory closure is a staple of the television
Is this inevitable? Perhaps it is time to examine how desirable
unlimited free trade really is. “That Should Still Be Us” is a vigorous, crisply
written, and wellinformed attack on the effect its doctrines have had on the
Martin Sieff, a former Jerusalem Post staffer and now a
columnist for Fox.com (and a long-standing friend of mine) puts his case
bluntly: China’s industrial and economic rise has been underpinned by stern
protectionist policies. It is time that America followed suit.
points out that the much-lauded high-tech economy, typified by Facebook, Google,
and Amazon, may be profitable, but it employs relatively few people and creates
little wealth. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is especially targeted by
the author for his advocacy of globalization and new technologies that have
failed to deliver prosperity for American workers. Friedman touts new energy
companies exploiting sun, wind and tides, but Sieff highlights the old-fashioned
oil and gas drilling industry which, thanks to its new fracking techniques, bids
fair to make America energy-independent for decades, with pleasing results for
its trade balance.
Sieff’s forte, though, is in taking a fresh look at
economic history. Lincoln emerges as the founder of American prosperity. By
pushing corporation-friendly legislation through Congress and giving railroad
companies land grants enabling them to build a nationwide transportation network
(essential for getting industrial and agricultural produce to markets home and
abroad) and then protecting the entire commercial edifice with stiff tariffs
during the Civil War, Lincoln converted a nation partly dependent for its
productive capacity on slave labor into an advanced industrial state. This was
Lincoln did not make his legal reputation doing pro bono
work for slaves who tried to escape via the Underground Railroad.
became wealthy as a lawyer through his skillful representation of commercial
clients – especially railroad companies.
Sieff accepts that protectionism
is not enough on its own. “Your managerial structure, engineering design, and
production expertise and efficiency of production have to be good,” he
“Quality matters.” But it has the added attraction of being an
investor-friendly policy. International investment “flows most of all into a
successful, industrialized, and protected industrial economy.” Right now, China
fulfills these criteria best, not the United States, and therefore attracts more
foreign direct investment.
At present, protectionis m is off the American
political agenda. With bad economic times, people fear the risk of trade wars
leading to a greater crisis. But this finely argued book has clear relevance for
Israel. One of Sieff’s complaints about Friedman is his lack of sympathy for
industry and those who work in it. Here, the old Zionist ethos of redemption
through physical labor has long since gone. Factories have the image of being so
dilapidated and run-down, so yesterday, in contrast to the vaunted glittering
concrete and glass palaces of Herzliya and Yokneam.
I don’t knock
high-tech. In many ways, it helps the country earn its keep and makes the most
of an intelligent workforce. But what of the rest of us? The under-educated, the
under-trained, the under-qualified? Stef Wertheimer gets the point. Our
columnist Shlomo Maital, reviewing his biography last year in these pages,
recalled the advice Wertheimer gave to entrepreneurship students. “Launch
factories, make tangible things for export, don’t work abroad, you have endless
opportunities at home.” And Maital added that both Wertheimer and his son Eitan
“believe in the old-fashioned notion that a modern nation has to have advanced
factories that produce goods for export and generate well-paying jobs –
something America forgot long ago, to its detriment.”
It would be nice to
think that one day the ghost of Acre’s ceramics industry (unlike that of
Napoleon, one hopes) will rise from the dead, and that I can replace my lost
cookware with some blue-and-white product. Till then I warmly recommend the
Treasures in the Walls museum to you all. It is an under-appreciated
And let’s hope that those in charge of the museum don’t have to
extend it over the next few years to accommodate the rest of Israeli industry.