Saturday, February 13, 2010

American manufacturing

The Plight of American Manufacturing According to this article by Robert McCormack, Since 2001, the U.S. has lost 42,400 factories -- and its technical edge.
Something has gone radically wrong with the American economy. A once-robust system of "traditional engineering" -- the invention, design, and manufacture of products -- has been replaced by financial engineering. Without a vibrant manufacturing sector, Wall Street created money it did not have and Americans spent money they did not have.

Americans stopped making the products they continued to buy: clothing, computers, consumer electronics, flat-screen TVs, household items, and millions of automobiles.

America's economic elite has long argued that the country does not need an industrial base. The economies in states such as California and Michigan that have lost their industrial base, however, belie that claim.
Much of this has happened as a a result of the separate educations of the head and hand. We teach to the test, avoiding hands-on learning, thus sheltering the wealthy class from an understanding of the processes and dignity of human productivity, while isolating the poor from the power to create. The Reagan idea of "trickle down economics" implied that when the rich have lots of money and are protected from taxation, their dollars will be invested in putting people to work. But what if the investor class has no idea of work? You guessed it. They will only invest in financial schemes they think they understand. Human creativity is not one of those.

And so we have allowed our manufacturing sector to become uncompetitive and have rationalized its failure as a sign of our success. Talk about being a nation of idiots! As long as the financial sector was getting its cut off the top, who cared where the products came from or who made them? Who needs American manufacturing when the rich can feed their pockets from a small cut from the steady stream of flat screen TV's and other consumer products from China?

There is a slight loneliness in being a maker in America. Mine may be a lonely voice at times. But the joy of personal creativity is indescribable. We each are empowered to make necessary change. Take a kid to the wood shop. No kid? Make something. With practice you can make things to sell. Selling a few things, you will have helped to restore the economy.


  1. Perhaps we are becoming a nation of "practical" idiots. Maybe this is an unfair generalization, but I am not sure the middle and upper classes have a lot in connection any more with the likes of hand tools, the ability to make things, etc. Heaven help us if the electrical power grid fails and our computers shut down.

  2. There's no creativity in a modern factory, nor even that much use of hands- and it's only going to get worse. Are you familiar with 3-D printer technology? I wrote about it here

  3. Overstating again, IMO, when you say, "Much of this has happened as a a result of the separate educations of the head and hand.".

    From the article:

    But American companies have difficulty competing against foreign countries that undervalue their currencies, pay health care for their workers; provide subsidies for energy, land, buildings, and equipment; grant tax holidays and rebates and provide zero-interest financing; pay their workers poverty wages that would be illegal in the United States, and don't enforce safety or environmental regulations.

    How does the schooling you espouse correct economic disparities like wages, financing, taxes, currency devaluation, etc? How much more of an impact does different schooling techniques impact domestic manufacturing than the factors mentioned above and in the article?

  4. I get to overstate things on occasion in the blog, and I don't think the exaggeration is unwarranted. As to the connection between the education of the hand and the education of the mind, early educators believed that work with the hands fostered a sense of the dignity and value of all labor. It was a reinforcement of democratic values. And so we can look at the white collar/blue collar divide here in the US, and at least some of the poverty and disparity of income and opportunity can reasonably be traced to the period in which hands-on training for all was abandoned.

    Joel, you are right that modern manufacturing wasn't much of a creative endeavor for most employees. But I do know that some found dignity in it, and took pride in their work. It is not exactly the kinds of creative craftsmanship that I am allowed to do, but was better than unemployment. I'm not sure that the desktop factory will displace caring workmanship. Or that the thing with its limited capacity to put materials to their best use, will make more conventional work obsolete. But I do like the idea of the economy being driven by individual artisans.

    I can make things that last generations. And why not have things that have lasting value instead of living in such a way that we are dependent on landfills to swallow the steady stream of waste products?

    Yes, Bear, we will be in deep trouble if the grid fails. A man in Haiti was crying for his lack of tools. We would be crying for our lack of understanding in how to use them.

  5. "How does the schooling you espouse correct economic disparities like wages, financing, taxes, currency devaluation, etc?"

    I'm not sure that schooling is the answer to governmental stupidity. We went off the deep end pursuing "free trade" when fair trade would be better for the American people. At a governmental level, we decided that it was OK to become a consumer nation with a "service" economy. I'm not sure what they thought young men and women were to do to make a living without becoming skilled at something.

    But we take a short view of things, having to do with the next reporting cycle on earnings, to sustain investment values on Wall Street.

    But can schooling have effect? When the education of head and hand are united, those who would seek university education do so having some knowledge of the skilled contributions of labor, the dignity and value of the contributions of others. In addition, they have had their eyes opened to the potential economic and social values inherent in production. Instead of investing only in monetary schemes, there is a possibility that they would invest in putting people to work in creative enterprises.

    I wanted to be sure I had responded to your question, Anyn, and I hope this does so.

  6. Reuben Rajala8:26 AM

    Living in the Gorham/Berlin area of N. NH and growing up in Keene, NH, both traditionally strong manufacturing communities, I've seen the shrinking of towns, the loss of the working/middle class and the apparent tossing aside of trades and skills for average folks. Manufacturing may not always be the most stimulating work but folks feel a pride in making something, being able to buy it, earning a living wage with health care and a hopes for a decent retirement. Now many work 2-3 jobs, often in jobs that bring little challenge or satisfaction, certainly few monetary rewards, often no or poor health care and the idea of retirement becomes ever more distant.

    There is something wrong with America...we've allowed the companies to chase the lowest cost labor, then to reimport cheap products made from outsourcing our jobs and community stability.

    Having 700 channels on cable and cheap foreign made goods at Walmart while the country wracks up debt and trade deficits doesn't cut it.

    When I taught woodworking I marveled at the joy from kids of all abilities when they figured something out, learned some skills and made something! We can't become just a nation of consumers, service workers and financial market folks.

    Read Kevin Phillip's book "Bad Money" which is related to the profound and negative changes in America over the past 40 or so years, thanks to "free trade agreements" vs balanced trade, outsourcing, etc. Also read the book "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture."

    Investments in Wall St. mean nothing if we are not investing in Americans and Main St.