“Give us a level playing field.”
This figure of speech is frequently heard these days from voices representing various sections of the manufacturing industry. Most often, you hear it in discussions about international trade. This saying highlights the fact that innovation and efficiency are often not enough to retain competitiveness, especially in a global economy. Differences in the way countries handle monetary policy, labor relations, taxation, environmental concerns and intellectual property rights, among other factors, also determine what advantages and disadvantages manufacturing companies in those countries will face. In effect, we’re not all playing by the same rules, so to speak.
Of course, the concept of a level playing field is a figurative one and is not to be taken literally. There has never been a time when innovation and efficiency were the only factors determining a company’s success or failure in manufacturing. Entrepreneurs look for the chance to succeed despite conditions that discourage others. That’s the nature of opportunity.
Likewise, the concept of a level playing field is a relative one. What is level to some is uneven to others, depending on your point of view. The conflicting interests of steel producers versus steel consumers in the recent debate about tariffs are a perfect example. Small companies and large corporations have different perspectives. Moreover, conditions around the world change, often rapidly. The playing field will always be wobbly, no matter how you look at it.
There’s also a credibility issue to recognize. If we get the level playing field we’re calling for, will it be greeted with appropriate and responsible behavior in line with long-term goals, or will it be exploited by short-term actions to make the next quarterly statement look good to investors? This betrayal of trust has occurred in the past, blunting the worthiness of our current cause.
Pleas for a level playing field point to serious issues that need to be debated and addressed. They are too urgent to be ignored. Their complexity must not be underestimated, either by manufacturers who are calling for change or by policy-makers who hold the future in their hands.
In meantime, efforts to attain a level playing field must not divert all of our attention or energy from the opportunities that exist despite current conditions. Some U.S. manufacturers are doing very well right now. And they’re not fretting about what kind of playing field they’re on.