Cover image of "Factory Man," a book that makes understanding globalization much easier

Between 2001 and 2013, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million American factory jobs went away. During that same time, China’s manufacturing base ballooned to the tune of 14.1 million new jobs.” Numbers like these are impossible for any of us to get our arms around. How can we understand the human impact of this historic shift when all we have to work with are statistics only an economist could love? The award-winning journalist Beth Macy beautifully responds to that question in Factory Man. In her telling understanding globalization comes down to human dimensions.

Instead of tracing history writ large, Macy focuses on the story of one man in the US furniture industry who led the fight against globalization that had shuttered thousands of factories in Virginia, North Carolina, and elsewhere in the South. If you want to understand globalization and its impact on the US economy and on millions of hard-working Americans, Factory Man is a brilliant introduction.

The man under Macy’s microscope, John W. Bassett III, was the grandson of the founder of what had been the largest manufacturer of wooden furniture in America for many years. After decades of successful and profitable work opening and running dozens of furniture factories, JBIII (as he’s called familiarly) organized the coalition that successfully persuaded the US government to pursue trade sanctions against dumping by Chinese furniture makers. In the process, he managed to keep some 700 employees on the job in his one remaining factory in Galax, Virginia. Macy puts a positive spin on the courage and persistence that enabled Bassett to win this victory. However, given the big picture in which this story is just a tiny highlight, it’s impossible to come away with a feeling that Bassett’s victory was anything but pyrrhic.

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy ★★★★★

Macy’s reporting is unfailingly even-handed. JBIII is one of those larger-than-life characters with as many flaws as strengths, and he comes across as a fully believable human being in Macy’s telling. The men who competed with him, the Chinese entrepreneurs who rose up to challenge him, and the Americans who fought bitterly against the legal action he initiated, all emerge as credible individuals as well. However, Macy’s attention isn’t devoted entirely to the owners and bosses. During the nearly two years she devoted to researching Factory Man, she spent considerable time talking to both current and former workers at Bassett’s plants and elsewhere. The result is a well-rounded picture of the price we pay for globalization — a reality overlooked by the politicians, economists, and columnists who are its biggest cheerleaders.

Factory Man is lively and eminently readable. Macy writes from a very personal perspective, reporting on her relationships with the characters she portrays — including a large measure of frustration with JBIII as well as others who proved so difficult to interview. Traditional journalists may frown on this sort of thing, but as a reader I appreciate it. Understanding how the author uncovered this story makes it all the more rewarding to read.

For additional reading

This is one of the books I’ve included in my post, Gaining a global perspective on the world around us.

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