The Ghosts of Long Island

I am not from Long Island. I don’t have any family on Long Island nor do I work on Long Island. So why write this piece on Long Island? Simply because there is something there that is instructive.

Over the past years I have traveled to Long Island many times for business. In the early days I made a quick judgment on the place. Typical suburbia I thought, the classic bedroom community. As my trips there increased, I slowly came to realize there is something else there, something I could not describe for a long time.

There is something hanging over Long Island, in the backyards, in the pools, in the baseball diamonds. Something about the place…As I learned more about Long Island over the years, I began to understanding the Island and more importantly….the people.

Almost the entire historical ethos of Long Island has been as a place to get good work and raise a family. In the 1950s, refugees came streaming in from New York City’s stifling living arrangements and found the open spaces inviting and affordable.

They also came for the jobs, specifically the high paying manufacturing jobs. Jobs that could pay the mortgage, the bills and still allow some discretionary spending.

Yes, Long Island was a place that made things. What kind of things? There were gasket manufacturers and cabinet makers and so forth and they did well enough, but it was the Aerospace and Defense industry that was the crown jewel in the Island’s economy.

For example, no area in America had more of an impact on World War II than Long Island. This was the first war won primarily in the air, and two Long Island companies, Grumman (of Bethpage) and Republic Aviation (of Farmingdale) deserved much credit.

These companies and others like them provided many good paying jobs. Today these companies are either no longer in existence or are a shadow of their former selves. So what happened?

Someone got a bright idea.

“Manufacturing is a dirty business.” Definitely not suitable for Americans. There are other people who should be doing this type of work while we sit back and enjoy the good life of a clean service economy”, the experts promised throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Americans would do the brain work and others would perform the tough job of making things.

What a great idea! “We can do some drawing and figuring and others will do the dirty work, many said. The service economy is the future! So Long Island and America began to divest themselves from their industrial capacity.

The idea took hold. Globalism was hailed as the new future of the country. Books were written about how “the world is flat again.” “History is over”, pronounced one expert and perhaps most famously, “Deficits don’t matter” claimed a high government official.

But how was a service economy supposed to work, some of us wondered. Isn’t this like the apocryphal story of the village that made its living by taking in each other’s laundry?

Sadly, the idea was a chimera. Manufacturing businesses support services businesses. By definition any service business whether finance, hair cutting and yes, even our own precious business of consulting, cannot exist in the absence of the ability to produce goods.

After the service economy didn’t pan out, the brain trust told us, “No no forget services! We are going to have an Information Economy.” Remember the late ’90s anyone? How many people does employ today? Well now that idea has run its course, so finally for those who would be PT Barnum’s favorites, we are told there is going to be a Green Economy!

Service, Information and Green economies are fantastical aberrations meant to obscure the fact that we have willingly given up our industrial capacity and now depend on others to manufacture the necessities of modern life.

Now back to Long Island. As I continued to travel to Long Island throughout the years, I saw the history of the place reflected in its people. Whenever the subjects of the Defense Industry, growing up on the Island or even just general economics came up, the people seemed to have a melancholy air about them.

The look that came over their faces was one of those who have lived through a golden age and know that it will never return. Many of them have seen family, friends and even those they really didn’t like, move off the Island in search of better jobs and better opportunities.

I once sat next to the president of a Long Island community organization on a flight to Virginia and he confessed to me the biggest challenge his organization has is keeping young people on the Island. “They graduate from college and go to the Southeast or out West”, he said.

Funny how the two places mentioned by the community leader are places that either have some semblance of manufacturing activity (Southeast) or are centers of the “New Economy” de jour (West).

So they no longer come back to the Island to work and raise families. Indeed this is part of a larger trend we see in our country. There is the deindustrialization and the subsequent under employment that follows as people cannot replace the wages they earned in manufacturing.

The needs of the “World Economy” have been confused with the needs of our own. We have witnessed the greatest transfer of wealth the world has ever seen from America to the developing world. They send us manufactured goods and we send them our dollars.

So who is responsible? Can blame be exclusively assigned? No, there are too many culprits…too many that believed in the wrong things.

We are reminded; however, of General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell speech to the cadets at West Point in 1962. At the climax of the speech, General MacArthur cautioned the cadets against failing in their capacity as leaders:

“The long gray line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.”

My dear friends, in the churchyards and cemeteries of Long Island, the cries are deafening.

Until next week,

Michael Bechara
Managing Director
Granite Consulting Group Inc.

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