We can thank President Trump for giving us the opportunity to do something that we’re quite certain has never been done before.
Today we have an editorial that name-checks ABBA, The Beatles, Bon Jovi, David Bowie, Coldplay, Depeche Mode, the Doors, Dr. Dre, Peter Gabriel, Alicia Keys, Michael Jackson, Jay-Z, Led Zeppelin, the Monkees, Nine Inch Nails, Phish, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, U2, The Who, Stevie Wonder and Warren Zevon.
That’s an A-to-Z list that still doesn’t begin to capture the full range of musicians who have at some point used a Moog synthesizer.
Yes, at some point we’ll connect all this to public policy but first let’s have some fun.
A pronunciation guide: “Moog” rhymes with “rogue.” The name comes Robert Moog, a New York engineer was one of the early creators of musical synthesizers. Moog built his first prototype in 1963-64 and soon became so famous that in some quarters “Moog” became shorthand for any type of synthesizer.
His Moog Music company has a complicated corporate history — bankruptcy, liquidation, trademark issues, rebirth — but the essential thing to know is this: Today’s Moog Music is based in Asheville, North Carolina, where Moog taught music at the University of North Carolina-Asheville in the 1990s. He passed away in 2005, the same year that Moog Music opened a new factory in Asheville.
The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina may not seem the most likely place to find a famous creator of electronic musical instruments but Moog was an out-of-the-box thinker who liked that aspect of the place. “One doesn’t hear much talk of synthesizers here in western North Carolina,” he wrote in Keyboard magazine in 1979 soon after he moved south. “Most of the local musical instrument stores cater to fiddlers, pickers, and the disciples of Elvis the King. From this vantage point, it’s easy to get a good perspective on the electronic musical instrument scene.” Alas, if only we’d been able to persuade him to move to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia instead, we’d likely be the hosts of Moogfest, the annual festival/conference that is described as “a synthesis of music, art and technology” whose purpose is “to grow a global community of futurists who explore emerging sound technologies and design radical instruments for change.” In any case, Moog Music is in Asheville instead, where today it employs about 100 people, and here’s where we plug all this music history into modern-day politics and policy. You see, Moog Music says those 100 jobs are threatened by Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, so much so that the company might have to move overseas to survive.
How do tariffs on Chinese imports threaten jobs at an American manufacturer? Aren’t tariffs supposed to help American manufacturers? The answer: The economy is a complicated thing, too complicated to fit into a tweet or a sound bite. So read on . . .
The guts of a guitar are the strings and the body. The guts of a synthesizer are . . . circuit boards. And the biggest source of circuit boards is China. According to the industry’s trade association, China accounts for 50 percent of the world’s circuit board production. In fact, the world’s top four circuit board producers are all Asian nations. So are eight of the top 10. Those two exceptions are the United States, which ranks fifth with just 4.5 percent market share, and Germany, which ranks eighth with just 1.4 percent.
This reflects the hard truth of the global market: Asian labor is cheaper, and, unsurprisingly, consumers in more developed countries like inexpensive products, be it textiles or electronics. Moog synthesizers may be assembled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but they use a lot of parts from China. Whenever possible, the company says, it buys circuit boards from American manufacturers, even though they sometimes cost 30 percent more than the Asian imports. Even so, Moog says, most of the components in even those American-made circuit boards come from . . . China.
And in June, the Trump administration levied a 25 percent tariff on electrical parts coming from China.
So whether Moog buys American-made or Chinese-made circuit boards, the result is the same: They cost more.
Here’s how that plays out: “These tariffs will immediately and drastically increase the cost of building Moog instruments,” the company says. For Moog, that’s a problem. Moog sells instruments all over the world. Its competitors are also all over the world – primarily in Japan, France, Germany and Sweden, according to Reverb magazine. Those competitors aren’t seeing the price of their parts increase, because those countries aren’t engaged in a trade war with China. Trump may have just priced an American company out of the global market.
Moog, normally accustomed to making melodic sounds, is now sounding a harsher note. It’s warned that these tariffs “have the very real potential of forcing us to lay off workers and could (in a worst case scenario) require us to move some, if not all, of our manufacturing overseas.” The company has urged its employees to write their representatives in Washington, which, in Moog’s case, all happen to be Republicans.
Moog’s case is somewhat different from the motorcycle-maker Harley-Davidson, which has said it will move some of its production to Europe to get around tariffs that the European Union has imposed in response to U.S. tariffs. But it’s not that much different. The main point is that Trump’s tariffs are a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem. In the 19th century, American manufacturers had purely American supply chains. Now they don’t.
At the heart of Trump’s trade policies is a desire to force American companies to “repatriate” their supply chains. Except that’s not going to happen, not unless Americans develop a newfound desire to pay higher prices. And, in the case of Moog, not just Americans. Trump is fixated on “bringing back” jobs that have migrated overseas — except that many of these are low-skilled and therefore low-wage jobs. America’s competitive advantage today is in high-skilled “advanced manufacturing” jobs which, yes, might involve importing cheap electronics from Asia that get assembled into something else here. Making Moog synthesizers may not be what comes immediately to mind when we think of “advanced manufacturing,” but it’s a pretty good example nonetheless. It might also become a good example of how misguided Trump’s trade policies are if his tariffs on Chinese imports wind up forcing an American manufacturer to move overseas.