The reality of American manufacturing

Great column from Binyamin Appelbaum.  The post-war manufacturing boom was a unique time in America’s history.  It’s not coming back.  That said, we actually still do a hell of of a lot of manufacturing (you just can’t build a middle-class lifestyle off a low-skill manufacturing job) and we really need to think about making things better for service sector workers.

The Republican presidential nominee had not come to Western Pennsylvania to talk about any of that. He looked out over his audience and promised, as he does at most of his rallies, that he would revive the American steel industry.

There’s nothing new about nostalgia in politics. American presidential candidates spent the better part of the 20th century promising to help family farmers in the face of urbanization. [emphases mine] Now they promise to help factory workers in the face of globalization. Trump has made the revival of American manufacturing a signature issue, presenting his economic plan in an August speech in Detroit, the nation’s official postindustrial wasteland. Hillary Clinton has campaigned on a broader economic agenda, but when it came time to describe those plans, she chose a fac­tory outside Detroit as her backdrop.

Manufacturing retains its powerful hold on the American imagination for good reason. In the years after World War II, factory work created a broadly shared prosperity that helped make the American middle class. People without college degrees could buy a home, raise a family, buy a station wagon, take some nice vacations. It makes perfect sense that voters would want to return to those times.

From an economic perspective, however, there can be no revival of American manufacturing, because there has been no collapse. Because of automation, there are far fewer jobs in factories. But the value of stuff made in America reached a record high in the first quarter of 2016, even after adjusting for inflation. The present moment, in other words, is the most productive in the nation’s history

This myopic focus on factory jobs distracts from another, simpler way to help working Americans: Improve the conditions of the work they actually do. Fast-food servers scrape by on minimum wage; contract workers are denied benefits; child-care providers have no paid leave to spend with their own children…

The manufacturing boom of the postwar years was an oddity, and there will be no repeat of the concatenation that made it happen: The backlog of innovations stored up during the Great Depression and World War II; the devastation of other industrial powers, Germany in particular, which gave the United States a competitive edge. Yet some parts of the formula that created the middle class may be possible to replicate. Unions played a large role in negotiating favorable work rules, many of which have since entered into law. Stronger unions — or federal regulators, who have increasingly replaced unions as the primary advocates for workers — could improve conditions in the service sector, too.

Politicians of neither party are particularly honest about our present reality (suffice it to say, some are far less dishonest than others), but we need to adapt to this new reality rather than hankering for the old one.  I do love that line about the politics of farming in the 20th century.  I’m going to be using that analogy.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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