By Beth Macy
Perhaps you’re of an age that you remember going to a furniture store and seeing it filled with items manufactured in America. Surprisingly, that wasn’t too long ago. Today, though, the situation is very different. Search for American manufactured furniture, furnishings sourced and physically made in the U.S.A. and you’ll have quite a challenge before you.
Now, we are not unaware of economics and the drive of business to make a profit, often the biggest profit possible, social penalties be damned. American corporations have done a good deal of harm to the fabric of American life in pursuit of the biggest returns in the shortest time possible. Simply and plainly said, they have forfeited their souls and any social mission they might have had or their P.R. firms concocted for them in the name of perception.
But it’s something else to have companies from other nations invade our markets with artificially low-cost products, products below the cost of manufacture and shipping, to steal share away from American companies. Which is what happened in the furniture business, and what accounts for the abundance of foreign-made furniture. Yet, against this economic tsunami, one American dug in his heels and stopped the tide, at least for a while. That man is John Bassett, and its his story, as well as that of his family and furniture manufacture in America that Beth Macy tells.
Reading Macy’s impressive reportage you might conclude that with more business leaders like John Bassett, American industry would be stronger and the American worker would be better off, or at least have a decent job. Or, you might deduce that the will and strength required to save American manufacturing demands traits today’s business people lack. You’d be right on both scores. Essentially the tale is of someone completely dedicated to an industry, furniture, to a region and its people, southwestern Virginia and northwestern North Carolina, and to a tradition, the Bassett legacy of American-made furniture that spawned many companies and decades of prosperity for thousands of people.
Macy devoted more than two years to tracking down the Bassett story, interviewing John Bassett, his family, employees, current and former, and innumerable others, including competitors. To truly appreciate John Bassett and his tenacious campaign to fight offshoring and Chinese dumping, you have to understand the Bassett men and women who preceded him, who built Bassett and the Bassett family of companies. This is why Macy spends the first two-thirds of the book on the family, company, and region’s history. It’s also why you might conclude that what JBIII, as Macy calls him, accomplished might be beyond others, or simply not in their scope opened wide to embrace global commerce.
In the last third of the book, Macy, in dramatic and entertaining fashion, walks you through the legal battle and ongoing outcome of JBIII’s successful effort. It entailed wielding the Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act of 2000 (CDSOA, also known after its crafty sponsor, Senator Robert Byrd) against the dumpers. But before JBIII could do that, he had to round up legally convincing evidence of dumping and form a coalition of manufacturers to finance the effort. None of this was easy and a less dedicated man might have tossed up his hands and been happy to live peacefully on his personal fortune. Which will lead you to wonder how many such people we have in America today.
In addition to JBIII’s family, the regional tradition of furniture manufacturing, the rise and fall of an industry, and the battle to make offshore companies pay, Macy brings to vivid life the effect of global business on the American factory worker. Whole areas of the country have been decimated by what economists and financial whizzes like to call creative destruction, a concept courtesy of Joseph Schumpeter. You can taste the devastation in Macy’s descriptions and interviews that help you better appreciate the plight of millions of your fellow citizens. c/w