Manufacturing: Good Riddance!
Yesterday, Freddy, closed a piece arguing for stronger labor unions and better enforcement of (along with reform of) our immigration laws thusly:
This won’t come without cost. Goods and services, if produced here and for living wages, will certainly be more expensive. It will continue to be a struggle for these companies to compete with the dirt cheap labor available in foreign countries. These price increases, meanwhile, will certainly be passed on to consumers. But we have to ask if that is a worthy bargain. I certainly question whether the ability to buy clock radios for $9 or four and a half ounces of California blueberries for a dollar is really worth the shelled out economy we’ve created, where wealth has to be generated by shuffling paper rather than through the classic, tried and true system of people paying for goods and services that improve their lives. Would the American consumer be willing to pay more than they are used to for the things they need? I don’t know. I do know that the system of dirt cheap commodities, constant consumption and a almost nonexistent manufacturing base has left us with a financial crisis the likes of which we never thought we’d have to endure. At this point, I think any option is on the table.
His cohort E.D. Kain strikes a similar pose in a post musing about the definition of prosperity.
This is the fundamental flaw in modern economic theory. It touts the creation of cheap goods via cheap labor and resources as the purpose of prosperity in and of itself. Never mind that this requires shipping all our manufacturing jobs overseas. The once well-paid auto workers will be able to buy such inexpensive goods from China that, if they are lucky enough to find them, jobs in fast food restaurants and retail outlets will be enough to subsist – nay, prosper – upon.
The pieces are both long and thoughtful and the excerpts aren’t necessarily fair summaries of their complex arguments. But both Freddie and E.D. make a point that I hear time and again and simply don’t understand; namely, that the decline of the manufacturing sector and its substitution with a service economy is a horrible thing. We have to make things, damn it, if we’re to sustain an economy over the long haul.
The classic professions to which all mothers of yore wanted their sons to aspire — doctors, lawyers, teachers, and such — are all service economy employees. (So, for that matter, are cowboys, which certain commentators caution mothers to avoid having their babies grow up to be.) Are these jobs no longer desirable? After all, they don’t make anything?
The advantage of manufacturing jobs over the professions, of course, is that they have far lower barriers to entry and, for a relatively brief period, anyway, they paid salaries disproportionately higher than the demanded skill and training. Things too good to be true seldom stay that way for long. Naturally, capitalists sought to substitute the substitutable. Unionized workers doing unskilled, repetitive tasks were gradually replaced by robots and/or non-union workers in other states or other countries.
I understand why many see this development as a bad thing. Unskilled middle class wage earners suddenly become unskilled lower class wage earners or, worse, unemployed. And many of them lack the abilities and resources to transform themselves into skilled middle class wage earners.
Still, most did. We’re still making all the cars we need — indeed, more than we need at the moment — and yet we’re now selling more goods and services to one another than ever before. What have we lost as a result of the transition? And why is making stuff more valuable than doing stuff?
E.D. gives one possible answer:
Individualism leads to the growth of the State because individualism denies the need for community and family; it abandons such antiquated notions as God and tradition and favors reason and wealth over history and modesty. In the end, however, individualism inevitably falls short; reason inevitably contradicts itself. A nation of individuals is inherently chaotic, and will gravitate, sometimes consciously, oftentimes not, toward a bigger and stronger and more all-encompassing State.
The trouble is, I happen to like reason and wealth. And, for that matter, one can have consumer excess and misplaced priorities in a manufacturing economy, too. He continues:
Divorce rates are at unprecedented levels. Depression is as common as the common cold. We patch our sadness up with pills and purchases. People are generally not made happier by their ability to buy cheaper goods, and pharmaceuticals have only mixed success. Defining prosperity by our consumption instead of our work may be at the heart of much of this. Hard work is good for us. It can stave off boredom; it keeps us fit and gives us purpose. There is a reason we term it our calling or occupation. But nowadays hard work is not something that is generally viewed as very worthwhile or necessary. Ambition and entitlement make strange bedfellows. Yet we are dropped into a culture of want, and told that we can do anything, and not only that but that we deserve it as well.
Frankly, if I had to work on an assembly line, doing the same task minute after minute, hour after hour, day after — well, you get the point — I’d need more than pills. Granted, a job in a fast food restaurant isn’t particularly appealing, either, but I don’t see why it’s inherently worse. In both cases, they’re a means of making a living rather than a career.
More of us than ever are doing relatively safe, comfortable, intellectually satisfying work. That’s a good thing, no?
Photo by Flickr user harry-nl, used under Creative Commons license.