Faux Manufacturing Nostalgia

Politicians, writers, and policy intellectuals talk a lot about “good manufacturing jobs” and how much “working families” have been hurt by the decline in the availability of such jobs. But back when such jobs were much more plentiful as a proportion of the total workforce, the social critics of the time were by no means uniformly enthusiastic about them.

Indeed, hostility toward mass-production manufacturing goes back to its earliest days. Remember Blake’s “dark satanic mills?” And then there was the Arts and Crafts Movement inspired by William Morris and John Ruskin (circa 1850), which was partly a reaction to the perception that mass-production methods created a dreary uniformity among everyday objects.

There was certainly some validity in many of the critiques. But there were also threads of criticism which were driven by an aristocratic contempt for people doing useful tangible work…an attitude that goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. Whereas Morris/Ruskin respected the craftsman, there were others who regarded anyone working with his hands as a “menial”…and often extended this attitude to the owner or manager of a large factory. To many aristocrats, banking and trade were considered inferior to land-owning…and manufacturing was considered inferior to banking and trade.

My perception is that by 1900 or so…at least in the United States…mass-production methods were increasingly accepted by the Criticizing Classes, and the focus of criticism moved more exclusively to wages, working conditions, and ownership. Many socialists were quite happy to see the continuation and expansion of mass-production manufacturing as long as it was run by the workers or by “society”–indeed, Lenin was a strong supporter of Taylorism. And the famous Fabian socialsts Sidney and Beatrice Webb were very strong supporters of what they called the Machine Age.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, this attitude among intellectuals and social critics–general support for technology in general and mass-production manufacturing in particular, combined with a desire to change the ownership and control of those activities–largely continued. But in the 1960s, something changed. Technology was now often regarded as threatening or outright evil, and mass-production manufacturing was viewed as “dehumanizing.” The term “anomie,” popularized by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, was frequently used to describe the spiritual environment created by industrialization.

A revealing and bizarre example of this hostility to industry is provided by the fate of the GM-Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild. This was a nationwide contest which encouraged boys to make a model Napoleonic-era coach(during the first phase of the program, 1931-1947) or a model car (1947-1968). Substantial prizes, including college scholarships as well as cash amounts up to $5000 (in 1933!) were awarded to those judged to have done the best work. Ruth Oldenziel describes the kind of craftsmanship that was involved:

Contest rules demanded that all parts be handmade, which necessitated the ability to build a miniature Napoleonic coach..from scratch, to read complicated patterns, to draft accurately, carve wood painstakingly, work metal, paint, and make upholstery with utmost care…(a typical model) demanded an extraordinary amount of dedication and time–about three hours a day over ten months…

By 1960, eight million American boys and young men had participated in this contest. GM undertook this effort for PR reasons, of course, but also as a sourcing vehicle for the skilled workers that they needed. Schools were heavily involved in promoting the activity.

But in the mid-1960s, many schools became hostile to the program. One winner recalls that “when GM came to my high school principal and requested permission to make a presentation to an assembly of 2000 in my honor, the corporation was turned down.” Oldenziel:

By the sixties male teenagers no longer projected their future years into corporations, as canvassing corporate representatives were shocked to find out. Someone close to the organization remembers that “in the late sixties, [GM’s] presentations at inner-city high schools were not that well received.” He thought that “often the disillusioned, turned-off young of that era felt little motivation to exercise the kind of self-discipline required for the creativity and craftsmanship it took to win even a college scholarship” and concluded, “I hate to say it, but I think a few of our Field Representatives felt fortunate to escape from some of those school assemblies in one piece–it got that bad.”

The program was terminated in 1968.

While the were certainly things to criticize about this GM program…the exclusion of girls, the total focus on styling/appearance rather than mechanical aspects of the auto industry…it’s pretty clear that the hostility that killed the program wasn’t driven by anything so specific–rather, by a broad-spectrum hostility toward business, industry, and technology. Indeed, the idea of having large numbers of teenagers spending long hours working on something other than “social change” was probably a threat to some leaders of the “counterculture.”

I have also read that circa the same period, there was considerable worker sabotage in the auto assembly plants (for example, dropping bolts in places where they shouldn’t go in order to create a hard-to-find, hard-to-fix rattle.) Some of this was certainly a reaction to the antediluvian and obnoxious management practices that were then common among U.S. auto manufacturers, but it’s hard to believe the hostility wasn’t also driven by the overall change in the social climate.

Generalized hostility toward industry, or at least a complete lack of appreciation for same, has certainly driven many public-policy decisions. For example, here is a story about people in the towboat industry in Seattle who have had to wait between four and five years to get permits for minor facilities improvements. This is not just about bureaucratic delay and inefficiency–there is something else going on.

“It’s all cultural,” says Eugene Wasserman, executive director of the Neighborhood Business Council. If it were biotech, it would get the green light.

“Biotech is cool. Propellers and pilings are uncool,” is how the government’s attitude is summed up by columnist Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times.

Several years ago, I observed a local example of the cool/uncool phenomenon noted by the columnist above. A county government had an “incubator” program for new, technology-oriented small businesses..free or low-cost office and lab space, that sort of thing. Someone who was starting a metalworking business to make a new product applied…he was turned down, because the county government wanted “cool” computer-related businesses. (There were no environmental issues: this was clean light manufacturing.) Government officials, who most likely knew very little about any technology whatsoever, chose the currently-fashionable technology, which was web sites, not lathes and milling machines. (Wonder how many of the companies that they did sponsor are still around?)

In her interesting book My River Chronicle Jessica DuLong (who became ship’s engineer on an old restored fireboat running on the Hudson) describes a bitter fight about the proposed construction of a large cement plant on the river. She herself sounds a bit ambivalent about the matter, as she is both a lover of the river’s natural beauty and a strong supporter–I almost said a lover–of industry. Here, she quotes another writer on just how bitter things became:

Plant supporters were portrayed as being less intelligent, less educated, or having a ‘bizarre nostalgia’ for the days of industry. Plant opponents were often stereotyped as being rich, gay antiques dealers from New York City.

The fight lasted six years, and the plant lost. (DuLong notes that opponents of the plant frequently mentioned the painting of the Hudson River School, and points out that many of these painters had in fact elided then-existing industry from their works, so that the “pure” image of the river drawn from these paintings was in fact partially a mythical one.)

Stopping the plant was another watershed event in Hudson River history, solidifying the shift away from the river’s industrial past and toward a future economy based on landscapes, heritage tourism, and a deep sense of place.

I wonder how many among the fervent opponents of the plant are now among those calling for a restoration of “good manufacturing jobs?”

Manufacturing in the United States has been harmed not only by certain top-level Federal and State government policies (the treatment of capital investment and depreciation in the tax code, for example) but by thousands and thousands of local conflicts and decisions like those mentioned above–and these, in turn, have been driven by cultural factors.

A couple of days ago, our blogfriend Bill Waddell wrote about public attitudes toward manufacturing. Excerpt:

A guy I met in Australia a few months back who has spent his lifetime in manufacturing, mostly in engineering products and devices that bring electric power to millions of people, told me that Down Under, when he and his wife attend social events as soon as people find out he works in manufacturing, they change the subject. They don’t even ask whether he is the janitor or the CEO. Knowing that he works in manufacturing triggers either scorn or pity – but either way his career is not perceived to be something worth discussing any further.

I mentioned a while back some comments from the former CEO of one of the big auto-parts manufacturing companies (I think it was Eaton) who noticed that people he met at cocktail parties tended to be turned off by his occupation and much more interested in discussing his long-ago college experiences. And someone recently told me that women surveyed about their preferences in men (on a dating website) listed “works in manufacturing” as a dealbreaker second only to “is bald.”

Culture matters. These pervasive negative attitudes toward manufacturing have been inculcated by many prominent and influential voices over the past four decades, and they will not be easy to reverse.

(The information about the GM Craftsman’s Guild is from Boys and Their Toys? Masculinity, Class, and Technology in America, edited by Roger Horowitz. Ruth Oldenziel is a professor at the University of Amsterdam.)

44 thoughts on “<em>Faux</em> Manufacturing Nostalgia”

  1. I’m one of those people who knows next to nothing about manufacturing, and what little I know is probably based on stereotypes. This isn’t because of any active antipathy; it’s just good old fashioned ignorance of things one has no contact with.

    But surely this is part of the problem, and something that both friends of manufacturing and my fellow ignoramuses should consider. The car making example is a good illustration, but what opportunities exist for an ordinary citizen who doesn’t work in manufacturing to learn something about it in the normal course of life?

    For example, I live in a run down city that used to have lots of manufacturing, and still has some. But how would I as a normal Joe ever know what goes on? In another non-residential part of town there are some giant buildings; they have signs out front like “Foster Products Company.” OK, well what does that mean? No pictures, no billboards, no windows, no storefront. I guess people work there, because there are cars in the lot. I never seem to read about the place in the local newspaper. If I was motivated I might look them up on the web, but of course even that wasn’t possible 10 years ago. Maybe they make something I use every day, but I’d never know. Maybe the place is virtually abandoned; I’d never know that either. There is definitely an “out of sight, out of mind” problem — some of it self-inflicted, some of it imposed. Is manufacturing doing enough to make itself understood? (Rhetorical question for discussion.)

  2. “Indeed, the idea of having large numbers of teenagers spending long hours working on something other than “social change” was probably a threat to some leaders of the “counterculture.””

    Excellent observation. The modern American education system is mainly focused on spreading the doctrine of multiculturalism and “tolerance.” The last 2 or 3 generations have been softened up and dumbed down in order to accept (with pride) their own demographic replacement. If real thinkers are needed, they’re brought in from Asia(where they still teach math and science).

    The American education system is more geared for creating “citizens of the world” who specialize in “fighting injustice” (ie..forcing the Western world into accepting its own demographic replacement). Teaching boys (or girls for that matter) to be innovative and creative (real creativity, not sticking a needle through their genitalia) is very dangerous to the power structure. Its better that they listen to hip hop, obsess over clothing, and have lots of sexual intercourse.

  3. Dear “A Reader”

    Just like the kids in the GM program, you find out about manufacturing by making stuff. You learn by doing. Start simple. Some idea’s to pursue:

    Search on the Internet for simple projects and groups that interest you. Craft fairs, Make.com, instruct-ables. Find local clubs that build stuff (woodworking, radio control cars and planes, custom autos, robots, etc).

    Get to know people that make things as a hobby, because they tend to make stuff in their day job as well.

    Find something that is broken and take it apart to see how it was put together. Try to figure out why it broke. Now try to put it back together.

    Warning: This may involve getting your hands dirty.

    This “dirt” issue may be part of manufacturing’s bad reputation.

  4. Great, then! I am one of those rare women, apparently, who considers engineers the best professionals possible (second only to architects, hehe).

    Well, that would be logical, wouldn’t it, having one grandfather a highly skilled metalworker, the other – railroad engineer/supervisor, father – a manufacturing engineering executive…even my ex was has an engineering diploma (CNC-tools designer and then a programmer) – and my son is an UoM Industrial Engineering’ program graduate. [besides, my first thesis was called “Automation line technology for hot-dye processing of a towing hook for a heavy-load truck KamAz”…Yeah, scary]

    Maybe that’s one of the reasons I am very suspicious of service economy’ advocates. I can formulate my objections, but afraid they will not sound intellectual enough for this crowd.

    David, you’re not wrong about Lenin, but the logic is not quite what you say. The juxtaposition, in Lenin terms, was industrial progress vs ineffectual agrarian economy, ergo – prioritizing of proletarian masses; he based it on Marx economic theory, not cultural preferences. He was proponent for Taylorism, but only as a means for efficient organization of industrialized labor. He hated everything rural and patriarchal, understandably. One of the reasons might be that it is easier to control workers in a factory, busy at the conveyor, than somewhere in fields, adhering more to a nature’s cycle than to the manager’s schedule – but that was, I think, a side benefit.

  5. Oh, forgot to add re: GM program.
    When my son was a student at Ann Arbor (1.5 years ago), the engineering school had an automobile club he was enrolled in: GM supplied parts and some machine-tools, and students were building engines from scratch, and improving/innovating them along the way. GM was heavily involved in teh process, and extended job offers to the best and brightest in the club upon graduation.

  6. A Reader asks a very good question: “Is manufacturing doing enough to make itself understood?” The cultural environment is hostile to traditional manufacturing and manufactures, I know, but it’s still a good question. Perhaps they are and the larger culture make it difficult.

    To address Stan’s point, too: Making stuff doesn’t always lead to understanding manufacturing – some of the “creative crafty” set that is a part of the green movement doesn’t take kindly to manufacturing.

    I am thinking of Etsy (“Your place to buy and sell things handmade”) here, which is an incredibly popular site:


    Manufactured goods, cheap manufactured goods, creates a desire for “authentic” homemade items, or the appearance of old, homemade, antique-y things. The funny thing is that it is so very cultural. If I take my mother to, say, Anthropologie, she will say (and has said), “we know all about old stuff in India.”

    Translation = she thinks the mall fashion for distressed, homemade, “authentic” stuff is kind of affected.

    I do not know where I am going with this. Help!

    – Madhu

  7. I should have added that David Foster made the same points about the Arts and Crafts movement and the “creative crafty” set, but I think the movement ideas are still around aplenty (again, please see the Etsy site :) )

    – Madhu

    PS: The political class is very into cool versus not-cool. That, to me, is a sign of immaturity and insecurity. If you like a thing, and it interests you, then hey, THAT’S COOL.

    Of course, I have to say that as the demographic I am a part of would tend to dictate that I read the NYT and vote Democrat, but I don’t. Plus, I’ve started reading military things and no woman in my age or demographic that I know does that. It marks me out; I was kind of embarrassed at the hair salon the other day. No joke.

  8. Madhu got my main point, and I probably didn’t make it clear enough vis a vis Stan. When I say I know nothing about manufacturing I mean the factory business. I myself make things all the time and am very handy (well, there was that radio I took apart when I was ten than never quite got put back together….)

    But I know next to nothing about factories — businesses where they make stuff in quantity. (Small-scale craft stuff I know well, like, and do.) And I think David Foster is worrying about general public knowledge of that kind of manufacturing. The GM example is good because they were trying to introduce the general public to some of the nature of their business. But what about the assorted factories in my run down city? I think some of them make plastic parts, but I have no idea what goes into that in detail (some kind of liquid plastic squirting machine I imagine). Could I research it? Sure, but that presupposes my interest. The question I’m tossing out is: Are ordinary factories/manufacturers making any effort to be visible in their community? The ones near me do not. They may be very successful businesses, but the only time you’d know they were here is if they close down and lay people off.

    The Main Street in my town has at least a dozen empty, vacant store fronts. If each local factory set up some kind of demonstration or exhibit of their work in one of the whitewashed windows, people would learn a lot, and might even be interested in applying for work. But they don’t do that because they’re all makers and not talkers…. ;-)

  9. Reader,
    how you inviison the manufacturing businesses “making themselves visible to the community”? Like what – a promotional campaign “come to work with your neighbor”? Do other businesses do that? Have you ever see a bank or a hairdresser invite people in for a tour of their back rooms and behind-the-scenes operations?

    If you’re interested in manufacturing, seek books/popular-science articles about technological methods, processes, sequence of components’ transformation.
    You have right idea about “squirting”, btw, although it is a bit more complicated than that…involves phisical/chemical models of behavior of a heated mass under pressure, design of molds and injection processes.

  10. Tatyana says: “I am one of those rare women, apparently, who considers engineers the best professionals possible (second only to architects, hehe)”

    I don’t think the question on the dating survey necessarily reflected a prejudice against engineers…not sure exactly how the survey was done, but I suspect that “works in manufacturing” was proxy for “unskilled blue-collar” in the minds of most of those answering the question.

    Also, if we connect this post with Shannon’s recent post (“makers” vs “talkers”) it is interesting to note that a very significant % of those doing small-scale “making” in this country today–maybe even a majority–are in fact women…ranging from the pure hobbyist to the woman who sells her craftwork as a part-time business to full-time (small-scale, but often large enough to have employees) apparel manufacturers like the habitues of this interesting web site.

  11. David Foster – it all connects, somehow, doesn’t it :) How a thing works, how a thing happens, how A gets to B, is very important!

    So, one of the frustrating aspects of my business is that many of the decisiom makers don’t understand my corner of medical logistics very well. Even those fancy schmancy B school grads, as Bill Wadell put it in another comment on one of the threads. I always tell my students and residents that there is a certain physical reality to the world, and a lot of people don’t get that. It takes time to transport the biopsy to the lab, to enter the salient identifiers into the computer system, process said tissue, cut and stain said tissue, label the resultant slide, and then distribute to the doctor.

    That this is a difficult, costly, and time consuming process does not seem to enter the heads of many people, even those who should know better. Apparently, everything should just magically happen overnight!

    Tatyana – I kind of think A Reader’s idea is cool – the empty storefronts around these parts could use some more interesting and educational displays….it’s all advertisements for block grants and pleading to shop locally around here. Disturbing.

    My anecdote above about my mother was not my attempt at being socially dismissive: I like Anthropologie and make the point that, “hey, people like what they like and can then spend money on what they like,” when she says stuff like that. And she agrees! She just thinks it is funny in a satirical “Stuff White People Like,” way.

    *Re, the hair salon anecdote: I was talking about how these amazing things happen and we never talk about them. Like the passage in The Strongest Tribe about how soldiers tapped needles to their arms as they were fighting in 120 degree heat in Iraq, and then took breaks to receive saline. That is a fascinating anecdote, but when I mentioned it at the old salon everyone got quiet, and then I went back to talking about mascara, highlights, etc., because obviously my conversation was perceived as a little “out there.”

    Okay, I’m done blabbing now.

    – Madhu

  12. OPS…”a certain physical reality to the world, and a lot of people don’t get that”…indeed. Clausewitz famously spoke of the concept of “friction,” which he defined as that which distinguishes real warfare from war on paper. “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is very difficult.” (One British general remarked that battles always seem to happen in the rain, at the junction of two maps.) And friction in the Clausewitzian sense is of course not limited to military affairs: see this comment for an interesting comment about some of the difficulties faced in trying to ship aid to Haiti after the recent hurricane.

    People who have spent their careers in “staff” positions (ie, those that do not involve actual decision-making authority and outcome responsibility) tend to grievously underestimate friction, and it can be very dangerous to promote them to senior line positions in which they suddenly do have final authority for decisions.

  13. David,
    then, I think it would be more prudent to say “these women are prejudiced against unskilled laborers” rather than give an impression they despise everyone in manufacturing…after all, contemporary manufacturing requires very little unskilled labor, less operators(due to high level of automation) than engineers an machine-tool programmers.

    using the empty storefront as means of getting connected to the community would make little sense to a factory owner/management, I think. Maybe only in case if they need more workers and want to advertise a hiring campaign – but that would be in a totally different economic environment, don’t you think? As things are, they have more than enough applicants even for boring positions, I imagine. They are pragmatic people, not “talkers” [thanks, David, for pointing out that post].

  14. That’s not the point, I think, Tatyana. The point is educating the general public, sort of like a public service announcement about manufacturing. But, maybe you are correct – it wouldn’t work.


  15. What sort of public service? Like “this town has a cement plant that is very successful and employs 300 people”? The greens will bomb it tomorrow!
    No, it’s safe to keep low profile…

  16. This is a large and extremely complex question, going to the very heart of one of the most significant and intractable problems in our culture—the tendency to look down upon those who perform the grubby, essential work of making all the things we want and need.

    My grandmother was the daughter of immigrants from central Europe, her father a butcher, her mother a baker. They came from Bohemia to Chicago, where my great-granfather worked in the stockyards until he had enough money to rent a small shop of his own. I remember my grandmother talking about how strong he was, able to lift huge sides of beef and swine and carry them from the truck to the freezer, how hard he worked, even opening on Sunday mornings and holidays to serve those who had no refrigeration in their homes.

    She spoke of the only time she ever saw him cry, on the day he had the sign put up over his own butcher shop. She marvelled as this powerful man stood in the street, holding her mother, and sobbed unashamedly as friends came by and wished him well. Within a few years, he bought not only his own shop, but the storfront next door, where her mother had her bakery, and where she learned to create heaven in the shape of bread and pies delicious beyond description.

    Why do I recall all this ancient history? Because, even though she was an earthy, hard-working, blue collar woman in all respects, it was important to her that she was considered not as a Bohemian, but as an Austrian-Bohemian. For her generation, there was an indefineable extra status in being a member of the great Austrian empire. An aura of aristocratic elevation above the mean and common mass.

    Shannon Love has often referred to the articulate elites who approach the world from an intellectual, academic position. Even though they might come from humble roots, members of this elite often look with disdain on those less educated, especially those engaged in commerce and manufacturing.

    This superiority is lifted, almost seamlessly, from the aristocratic contempt that the former rulers of the world, the hereditary aristocracies of Europe and Asia, held for those whose common blood lines condemned them to a life of work in trade.

    Along with the virulent hatred toward capitalists and property owners preached by the revolutionary left, the snobbery and disdain of the old world right resulted in a powerful cultural animus towards the newly emerging middle class, whose manner of living revolved around the industrial and commercial, rather than the dignity of the land.

    The great majority of people do not spend an inordinate amount of time and energy analyzing and reformulating the various lessons and cultural assumptions they are taught from an early age. They accept, and believe, that these attitudes and viewpoints are valid and legitimate, if they ever think about them at all.

    We have come to understand the corrosive effects of racism as a way of thinking and believing about people and their positions in society. It was, and is, an enormously difficult and resistent frame of mind to overcome. In much the same manner, our society is dealing with the traditional assumptions regarding gender roles, or sexual alignments, attempting to revise and correct attitudes that are ancient and powerful.

    So too must we finally engage one of the most powerful and pernicious underlying assumptions that permeates our culture—that there is something less worthy about the hands-on workman, the manufacturer, the commercial money grubber whose life revolves around producing some common object as efficiently as possible.

    As parodied in Woody Allen’s movie about the Napoleonic wars, “Love and Death”, it is our contempt for the man whose entire world is herring, herring, and more herring.

    No matter how independent we like to think our minds are, we are very much the sum total of what we have been taught, from our mother’s knee to a doctoral program. And, for far too long, we have been taught that the commercial and the debased are pretty much the same.

  17. I work for a contract electronic manufacturing company. We make other people’s stuff – high-end stuff like ultra-sound machines and routers. We make it, stamp their name on it, ship it. That does not make me an expert – far from it! I work in IT: I only know ‘manufacturing’ from an IT POV.

    The question I’m tossing out is: Are ordinary factories/manufacturers making any effort to be visible in their community? The ones near me do not. They may be very successful businesses, but the only time you’d know they were here is if they close down and lay people off.

    We’re building a new office building downtown, on the site of an old mill. We sponsor lots of civic stuff. We paid a lot of money to rebuild a playground at the park by the river, and that’s got out name on it. We sponsor a team for the FIRST Robotics competition.

    But I’d reckon most people don’t actually know what we do. I’ve certainly heard people say often enough “Oh, you work for X – what exactly do you guys do?” and “Oh, you also have plants in the industrial park? I didn’t know.”

    We’re one of the biggest employers in town.

    But I’m not sure about educating people about us, with store fronts and demos. Profits are pretty thin and this would be an expense for .. what gain? More employees?

    Dude – we’re doing this century to manufacturing what we did last century to farming: doing more with fewer people. Farming is a big complex modern business that less than 2% of the people in this country are involved in. We could get millions of kids interested like GM did last century .. and have nowhere for them to go.

  18. My father was a farm boy who ran away to join the Navy in 1918 at the age of 15. When the war was over, he got out but never went back to school. He worked at various jobs, including a bank teller and a newspaper man, not writing but distributing. He had stories about the delays in getting out an Extra when the Lindberg baby was found. Toward the end of Prohibition, he and a friend had a speakeasy. Eventually, he got into the music business, first with nickelodeons. I wish I had them now. I can remember seeing five and even seven instrument nickelodeons as a small boy. By that time, they were stored in an attic at the music company. When the Second World War began, he made a lot of money with jukeboxes, a new phenomenon. He even invented several of the features including the arm that picked up records and placed them on a turntable. The Wurlitzer and Seeburg companies were right there in Indiana. Most jukeboxes (and slot machines) came from Indiana.

    By the time I was old enough to know anything, he was having trouble with the Mafia in Chicago. My mother told me stories about worrying as various gangsters held me on their lap, lest a rival appear with a machine gun. By 1948, he was out of the business. It was too dangerous. He could fix anything. He replaced the brake linings on his car, although that was risky as brake adjustment was not as easy to figure out. The first time I hit my thumb with a hammer, I was four.

    Much as I tried, my sons have not followed with manual skills. My younger son is doing better than his brother, who is a lawyer. He keeps borrowing my tools and not returning them. I don’t really mind.

    Thirty years ago, Orange County had an active boat manufacturing industry. Then came two shocks, the oil price rise and environmental restrictions on emissions. Soon the industry was gone. I knew some of the men who worked there. Next the metal plating industry left for Mexico. I worked at Douglas Aircraft Company in the 1950s as an engineer. The last Douglas plant closed in California a few years ago.

    I do know that skilled Mercedes mechanics make up to $150 k these days. I am not terribly surprised that young men are passing up on college when I see my daughter’s curriculum. I just hope they are learning skills. I know many who are. I have paid some of them thousands to do work on my house. I don’t believe any are African-American or Feminist Studies graduates though.

  19. I have also read that circa the same period, there was considerable worker sabotage in the auto assembly plants (for example, dropping bolts in places where they shouldn’t go in order to create a hard-to-find, hard-to-fix rattle.)

    Well, I’ve read this.

    My father worked in the auto industry, as did his brothers, and my mother’s brothers. When I first read this urban legend I was shocked. It was unthinkable to me that my father would ever resent rich men, as a class, especially those who kept him employed. Hell, he hoped he’d be one someday, and hoped he’d own a Cadillac. (He eventually did, but one fender was bright blue, while the rest of the car was olive green.)

    I was amused when I saw this painting at an exhibition. “One day, brothers and sisters, we will work in factories!” But I love this vision of the bigger and better future.

  20. Politicians of both stripes have long seen manufacturing as a goose laying golden eggs ripe for their plucking, and the current administration is continuing the pattern full tilt.

    Environmental regs are placed on the backs of US companies, that China, India and Mexico thunb their noses at. The result is costs go up here, manufacturing jobs move there, and the US economy takes a beating … but the greenies feel good for ‘saving the planet, even though all they did was move the source of the air or water pollution from the US to China. The planet is no better off, but the environmentalists get to feel good about themselves.

    Under the guise of ‘free trade’ we have enabled Wall Street to reap short term profits at the expense of our long term economic well being, by scooping up mnufacturers by the bushel basket and moving them to China, all justified by the idea of ‘free trade’. How can it be ‘free trade’ when China charges 10-15% on US goods going into their country, India close to 35%, and Brazil a whopping 39%, while we slap a negligible 2-4% on their godds coming into the US? In fact, Canada and Mexico suffer from entering into a real free trade agreement with us because they give up their right to follow the China, India and Brazil example and set their tariffs as high as they want to without repurcussion.

    From the locals slapping higher and higher property taxes on manufacturers to appease the townsfolks by offering better schools with no increase in residential property taxes; to the Dems buying voites by telling workers they will protect them from evil management with increasingly absurd safety and health regulations, family leave acts, and mandatory factory reconsytruction in case anyone in a wheelchair happens to get a job in the stte mill; to the trial lawyers running amok with ridiculous product liability suits (which they cannot bring against Chinese manufacturers); to Washington looking the other way at Chinese currency manipulations to keep the cost of consumer goods low, everyone plays in the manufacturing playground … and now looks up and asks ‘what happened to all the manufacturng jobs?’

    The readers and writers in ChicagoBoyz tend to be a pretty economically savvy bunch. Try this one on for size:

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics openly acknowledges that they cannot distinguish most of the outsourcing to China from actual productivity – so they call it all productivity.

    “Conceptually, the impact of offshoring is more pronounced in manufacturing measures than in the business sector measures, provided the domestic manufacturer is purchasing the offshored goods or services as inputs. (As with the business sector, the complete loss of manufacturing production to an importer of finished goods leaves productivity largely unchanged.) If a domestic computer manufacturer switches from domestic to foreign suppliers of intermediate inputs such as computer memory chips or call center services, real manufacturing sectoral output is unchanged. Because U.S. jobs are lost (all other things unchanged), labor productivity will rise. If the U.S. manufacturer switches most of its production to off-shore facilities, labor productivity might rise substantially.”

    Gee … do you think any US manufacturers have “switched most of its production to off-shore facilities”?

    At a grand confab of the leading economic poobahs earlier this year, the problem was discussed, the fact that the reported productivity statistics are grossly over stated was acknowledged, and the BLS decided to do … nothing. It would only confuse people if they changed the way they calculate and report productivity.

    You can read about it here: http://mfgcrunch.ning.com/profiles/blogs/the-problem-is-particularly

    So on and on Washington goes, telling the world that we did not lose 20,000,000 manufacturing jobs since the beginning of the Reagan years because of short-sighted government policies – we worked our way out of them with our dazzling productivity levels. Never mind that the trade deficit is so far out of line that the productivity explanation cannot possible be true.

    That is 20 million possible paths to middle class income gone – replaced by a generation of Starbucks baristas, and Washington scratches its collective heads wondering why the gap between rich and poor keeps growing. The superhighway for impoverished blacks in the south to the middle class neighborhoods in Chicago and Cleveland has been turned into a rutted, one lane country road, and we wonder why inner city kids can’t break out of their economic cycle.

    All the while the great economic minds of the United States shame themselves with their ludicrous interpretation of Ricardo’s theories concerning comparative advantage, that even a University of Cincinnati grad like me – its hardly a real college for Chrissake – can see through.

  21. Watch “How It’s Made” on the Discovery Channel. It’s all about how the products you use everyday are manufactured.

  22. Bill, I have a feeling you’d have much better articulated arguments to present to this discussion than I ever could. (I linked it above, too)

    It would be interesting to know your opinion – if you’d be moved enough to answer.

    My own 1.5 thoughts: yes, we are in a service economy, but that is nothing to be proud of or applaud to; it’s a bad thing in the long run, just like having all your money un-divercified, in one stock option is bad for your financial prospects.
    This topic bothers me a lot, for some reason.

  23. Tatiana, it seems that Bastiat is saying one thing, i.e. the whole of the economy, even manufacturing, is “service” of one kind or another, and the guys at Samizdata are trying to turn it around to say that Services are Better than Manufacturing.

    I’m reminded of the notice at the comments section of American Digest, stating that it’s impossible to write something in such a manner that it can’t be misunderstood.

  24. “My own 1.5 thoughts: yes, we are in a service economy, but that is nothing to be proud of or applaud to; it’s a bad thing in the long run, just like having all your money un-divercified, in one stock option is bad for your financial prospects.” said Tatyana.

    Like you I have a *feeling* that a service economy is not as healthy as a productive, manufacturing economy. The tourist “industry” is (I imagine) the least healthy of the service sector. Surely it serves a purpose – people need to “get away” from time to time; but there is something a bit whorish about the whole business.

    I suppose that this feeling stems from the general idea that human behavior, generally, is healthier for society, and the individuals associated with the behavior, when it is related to human need rather than optional human desires.

  25. Phil: yes, that’s the “enveloping” problem with that discussion, so to speak. In the end of that post there is also a link to an earlier post on the subject, with longer thread and wider discussion, with some of the commenters focusing on the aspects Bill Waddell touched in his comment above: services- as-commodity’ advocates who use the “free trade” argument to cripple domestic manufacturing in international competition.

    Tyouth: “service economy”, in this context, is a bit wider than direct-service industries that serve individual’s “wants” vs. “needs”. When engineering calculations or professional drafting production are outsourced, they are also part of “service” economy: the participant are trading their services on international market. Part of a technological process necessary for manufacturing goods that traditionally had been an intrinsic element of manufacturing, is shipped elsewhere, following the rule of lower expenses, and then a manufacturing plant in US becomes simply an assembly line – which then might be easier and cheaper to move somewhere else, too. Vast resources of highly-skilled human capital are wasted and abandoned for a quick return- all in the name of “free trade”. Some realize (like it had been increasingly happening in IT departments of companies that outsourced their programming operations to India and Philippines) that the savings are illusory, that fixing the subsequent problems resulting from such outsourcing eats up all the savings in payroll – but this realization has not entered the minds of libertarian advocates of service economy.

    oh, sorry, it looks like I saddled my own hobby-horse and strayed from David’s topic here.

  26. Tatyana…Bill W and his co-bloggers have written a great deal about the problems that can be encountered when offshoring production; you might find their blog very interesting.

    What is strange is that these problems often seem to be unexpected by those who encounter them.

  27. David: I do, thank you for recommendation.

    Tyouth: I think it is. If the “service exchange” mode is given preference, it all comes down to businesses “doing each other’s washing”, as someone cleverly said on the thread I linked to. Goods are not manufactured in the community but received from elsewhere (in our case, China or Mexico) while barbershop becomes a model business. Have you ever seen whole streets composed of barbershops? There are lots of those in Brooklyn. I always wondered how they all survive? And what will happen to these communities when their customers, having been fired from their various “talking” workplaces will no longer have the money to pay fro service? There is no manufacturing in NY, it’s a city of ephemera.

    You were talking about “needs” vs. “wants”, but how can you distinguish them? Man has certain natural needs to be satisfied – which is a foundation of all manufacturing – eat, sleep, serve his bodily functions, have a roof above his head for protection of elements and weapons to protect him from other, sinister, humans, etc. But these needs can be satisfied simply or in a complex way; you can live in a shack made of pieces of cardboard and rags or you could own a house built with latest building innovation technologies and materials. Where is the line that divides “need” from “want”, in your view?

  28. Tatyana,

    I don’t know how eloquently I can respond to the folks over on Samizdata, but I suspect it would be a waste of electrons to try. The best rebuttal to those who still think that – counter to just about everything Adam Smith and David Ricardo ever wrote – the United States economy can thrive on services, rather than manufacturing is to ask, a la Dr. Phil, after 30 years, How’s that been working for you so far?

    Wealth comes from the value tangible things – food, manufactured products, metals. I have to wonder if any of the folks who advocate converting the United States to a service economy, and under the guise of free trade having all of our manufacturing done in China, citing David Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage have ever actually read “On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation” – where the theory was first laid out in detail.

    As Ricardo and Smith both point out, the point of economics is both to figure out how to make the pie as big as possible, then to figure out how to most equitably divide the pie up among the citizenry. “The produce of the earth – all that is derived from its surface by the united application of labour, machinery and capital, is divided among … the community” That is the first sentence of the first paragraph of the preface.

    Manufacturing and agriculture are the ones that generate the “produce of the earth”. The service economy moves the wealth around. The service sector is good, imporant and necessary – but only when there is a vibrant agricultural and manufacturing economy creating wealth for them to move around. No point in having people very adept at slicing the pie when there is no pie to slice.

    The wizards running our economy – and note that this bastardization of Smith and Ricardo knows no party boundaries – the ‘Comparative Advantage’ rationalization for sending manufacturing to low cost countries and converting the United States to a service economy really began during the Reagan years and has continued full-tilt ever since – virtually all came from the Ivy League business schools, and they all think the same, but clearly have been very selective in deciding which of the Smith – Ricardo ideas to follow, and which to conveniently ignore. What their purpose in so destroying the American economy is I cannot begin to imagine. For some mind and backside numbing reading you might want to take a gander at the 462 page tome – The Economic Report of the President transmitted to Congress Februaery 10, 2010 – recently published by the current administration rationalizing more of the same on the basis of Ricardo.


    They say, “The concept of Ricardian comparative advantage – that nations specializing in producing goods that they can produce cheaply relative to other goods – can be seen in a number of aspects of U.S. trade. … If America cut its production of aircraft, where it has a comparative advantage, by $50 the billion it currently exports on net and instead tried to produce more of the goods we currently import [electrical equipment, clothing, furniture, and toys], productivity would likely be lower.”

    That is our official explanation for racking up an outrageous trade imbalance that can only lead to our ultimate downfall. To describe Ricardos theories in such a manner strikes me as akin to Lincoln accusing Douglas of using “a specious and fantastical arrangement of words by which a man can prove a horse—chestnut to be a chestnut horse”. In other words – bullshit.

    The wizards of Ivy League economics really ought to read Ricardo’s book. Page 1, Section 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1, Sentence 1 – “The value of a commodity, or any other commodity for which it will exchange, depends on the relative quantity of labour which is necessary for its production, and not on the greater or lesser compensation which is paid for that labour.” The entire theory of Comparative Advantage is all about productivity – not cost. It is about effective use of natural resources and people’s time to assure that the whole world is most productively employed for everyone’s advantage. Chinese productivity is abysmally poor. It takes 5-10 Chinese workers to do what one American does. There is no ‘comparative advantage’ to outsourcing manufacturing – just an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that, while the Chinese guy is only 15% as productive, he is paid only 5% of an American worker’s pay. He is living in an oppressive, dysfunctional country where he has to sell his labor cheap in order to survive. Manufacturing in China does not raise global production or wealth – it merrely takes advantage of the fact that there are people in the world living only a very small step above slavery.

    Even more absurd in the Obama doctrine is the premise that America would have to cut production of aircraft to make electrical equipment, clothing, furniture and toys. With 10%+ unemployment we can clearly make quite a few pieces of furniture, articles of clothing and toys without having to use the folks making airplanes to do it.

    Even at full employment – and at the long term heart of the issue – we would not rob people from the aircraft business – we would rob people from Starbucks. We would have more people adding to the size and quality of the pie, rather than our current disproportionate number of people whose only skill is to slice and serve the pie.

    I will end my rant with a comment on that other mantra of the ‘we don’t need to manufacture’ gang – that innovation is the key to our economic well being. Our economy was built on the one two punch of innovation AND manufacturing. It was Edison’s light bulb AND GE to make it; Ford’s Model T and the Highland Park plant o make Model T’s in huge numbers – in short it was taking brilliant ideas and turning them into tangible realities. Once again, our economic masterminds have only to read what Ricardo wrote – he quotes and agrees with the French economist John Baptist Say who wrote, “The first man who knew how to soften metals by fire, is not the creator of the value which that process adds to the melted metal. That value is the result of the physical action of fire added to the industry and capital of those who availed themselves of this knowledge.”

    Our whole economy is centered around the idea that we can sit around sipping cappuchino dreaming up ways to make better fires, while the world’s impoversihed make things for us with the hot fires we dreamed up. Adam Smith must be spinning in his grave, and David Ricardo would slap every Harvard economist he met for so libeling him with the abuse of his name to justify such insanity.

  29. Interesting thread! Interesting contributions! I learn a lot from you guys and gals, that’s for sure.

    What’s frustrating for me is how hostile my little corner of Chicagoland is to, well, any business, let alone manufacturing. Anyone remember the big stink about Walmart “invading” Chicago some years ago? That Walmart is doing just so-so, I’ve read, but I don’t know for sure. I found it interesting that when NPR did a story on the store, all of the locals they interviewed were positive – at the time – because, guess what? They were getting jobs.

    It’s so odd to live in a community where everyone laments the lack of jobs for certain populations, AND THEN IS ACTIVELY HOSTILE TO THE JOB CREATORS.

    Crazy. Just crazy. I mean, it’s some form of delusion, right?

    PS: It’s not strictly true that I don’t read the NYT and I don’t know why I wrote that. I read the At War Blog, and I like CJ Chivers and Dexter Filkins reporting from Iraq/Afghanistan. And anything to do with art.

    Also, there was a really touching article by a young man who has embedded many times in Afghanistan and he talked about how disconcerting it was to come back to college and find many people so, well, generally, uninterested in what was going on. Wes Morgan is the young man’s name:


    – Madhu

  30. Bill,
    Thank you very much for this detailed answer.
    I shudder to imagine all those distinguished economists shaking their places of eternal rest – but emotions aside, with what exactly we can counter the arguments of service economists?

    From businessman’ POV, successful business is the one bringing most profit. There are several ways to increase it, each requiring certain amount of investment and effort. One is to lower the cost of production. Which, in turn, could come from paying less for materials, equipment and labor force OR from innovation that lowers the cost/quantity of necessary labor force, eq-t and materials. In principle, it makes no difference to a businessman which of these methods is employed to achieve the ultimate goal of increased profit. If the machine operators in Michigan have to be paid 5 times more for a a technological step than similarly skilled machine operator in, say, Ghana, it makes perfect sense to outsource the operation to Ghana. On condition that the quality of production will not suffer.

    An aside: it is incorrect to compare Ghanan worker’ check to the one in MI and conclude the former is unfairly underpaid: he’s paid very well judged by market condition in Ghana. Relative value of Ghana’s currency is probably such that if he earned $15 per day he can buy a proverbial basket of goods that American in MI will have to spend 10 times more on. [Not talking about the quality of goods now, or even availability of them, just the value in local economy].

    Further, it makes sense in global exchange of merchandise to trade specializations: French cheese is of better quality in France and Swiss clocks – in Switzerland, due to massive accumulation of particular skills and technology. But if a manufacturing does not require local tradition – if, say, it’s a new industry, like cellphone production, why not separate R&D (which requires higher level of of employee’ input) and production, and to outsource the latter to Vietnam, where it’ll cost peanuts compared to a plant in Georgia, where all workers are union members?

    In other words, why not sit around sipping cappuccino dreaming up ways to make better fires, while the rest of the world make things for us with the hot fires we dreamed up? We make things for them, too – we dream up new goods and sell our engineering and scientific brains on the global market.

    I do have few objections, but rather badly formulated and not-even-a-half-thought; would appreciate your expert argumentation.

  31. Tatyana,

    I think the best answer comes from Ricardo again, “No country can long import, unless it also exports.”

    While we are sitting around drinking cappuchino made from imported beans, in an imported mug, in a Starbucks made with imported drywall, we are watching US dollrs leave – but no one is making anything to export. US dollars going out … and no Chinese yuan coming in to balance it out.

    That is a path that can lead nowhere other than to eventual ruin.

  32. That’s true.

    [and about that drywall: Chinese is not good for your health! There are several wonderful, innovative US manufacturers, but they are a tiny bit pricierdue to mandatory union benefits…]

    Thank you!

  33. Along with the drywall, the toys painted with lead and the toxic baby formula and milk don’t add much to our life expectancies either.

    The unions, however, are really yesterday’s problem. Only 8% of American manufaturing employees are union members … the 8% is primarily in automotive and have such a high profile that most people don’t appreciate that fact. Outside of the public sector – teachers, civil servants, firemen and police – union members are getting hard to find these days.

  34. Not in construction.
    Unions is the single biggest driver of construction costs in US building industry. Especially in public works. Taxpayers are rightfully outraged when they see the $figures spent on construction of courthouses and federal building – but they don’t see budget sheets and don’t know (or don’t care) why: price of goods and materials is orders of magnitude lower than the price of unionized labor. Cost of wallpaper, for instance, is $3-6/yard, and “installed” column is $80-100/yrd. On construction meetings discussing erection of a new courthouse building in NY (where I was present) was mentioned and incredible $500/ft average cost of GSA construction.

  35. I worked in a GM plant during my college summers and loved it. Seeing the end product of mine and serval thousand other workers’ labor rolling off the line was satisfying. I wanted to go into plant management after school.

    But, the plant closed. GM owned a great deal of land around the Framingham, MA plant and wanted to build a plastics plant adjacent to the assembly plant and re-tool the factory in order to build Saturn type cars. The town denied the permits! Too much traffic was their excuse. The state did nothing either – they were in love with Digital and Data General at the time (how did that work out?).

    The town of Framingham and the state of MA lost thousands of jobs and hundreds more potential jobs, and many millions in tax revenue. But you can zip right through Framingham without traffic now.

  36. I took all the manufacturing classes I could in grad school, as I was trying to move from financial services and just moving money around to making something useful.

    My operations analysis professor had a cartoon on his office door that showed the prof telling the class, “Today we are going to talk about making — things.” One student whispers to another, “Things? I don’t want to talk about making THINGS! I want to talk about making MONEY!”

  37. I stand corrected, Tatyana. Manufacturing (as of the end of 2008) was about 12-13% union. The 8% figure I shot from the hip with is total private sector union representation.

    The construction industry was about 16% union. It varies quite a bit by region of the country, so wherever you hang your hat might be a number a lot higher than this. These data are for the country as a whole. (Just like you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a unoin member in Michigan, but they are hard to find in Arizona and Texas)

    The public sector is 41% union

    You can pour through all of mind numbing data at the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site. The particular table I took this data from is at:


  38. Yes, it’s only 16%, but if look at what projects these unions are guaranteed employment in NY: schools, Justice, state and municipal buildings, etc. These all are $multi-million jobs, compared to more plentiful but lower scope projects in private sector.


    “The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Jan. 28, 2009 report states that 15.6 percent of the nation’s construction workforce was unionized in 2008. Therefore, since union-only PLAs effectively preclude open shop companies from working as such on a project, PLAs discriminate against the majority of companies and more than eight out of 10 workers who choose not to join a union. These workers’ hard-earned tax dollars fund these projects.” (Source)

Comments are closed.