Big Deal

Fabius Maximus notes that we now have more people employed in government than in manufacturing.

While I’m certainly not thrilled with the growth of government employment, which is a problem in and of itself, I can’t get very wound up about a decline in manufacturing employment, per se. All that says to me is that we’re becoming more productive in manufacturing, which I thought was supposed to be a good thing. As someone who has been employed in manufacturing on occasion, I’m glad that I don’t do it any more.

At the turn of the twentieth century, a large percentage of the population was employed in agriculture. I don’t know what the number is now, but I’d guess it’s on the order of a percent (and in fact the Great Plains states have been steadily depopulating). Despite this, we have no impending food shortage. And many who might have wasted their lives as a horny-handed son or daughter of toil and soil now have opportunities for both better paying and personally satisfying employment.

Should we weep for the loss of that bygone day when many more of us were privileged to follow the south end of a mule for a living? I would hope that most would say no, and I don’t see it as a tragedy if fewer people have to be drones on assembly lines, either. The problem isn’t that fewer people are working in factories, per se, but that we don’t have good jobs for those who have been displaced, particularly if they remain uneducated.

17 thoughts on “Big Deal”

  1. Everything you say is true, but that line is a great way of reaching middle America.

    You got to pay attention not just to your principles but to persuasion.

  2. The problem, Rand, is that the manufacturing jobs are going overseas instead of staying here. The companies are saving money by using very cheap labor in China, India, etc., and laying off American workers. Its happening in more and more sectors of employment, not just manufacturing.

    Full disclosure: I just lost my job to China, so yes, I’m prejudiced against outsourcing.

  3. As a descendant of a long line of plow jockeys, believe me when I say I appreciate the changing employment patterns that allow me to earn my keep in an air-conditioned office.
    However, as we lose manufacturing jobs we also lose many of those people who know how design things and to make them real, and who have the inspiration to invent new things. How do you get a Henry Ford or Wright brothers or Steve Jobs if you don’t have an environment where they learn the fundamentals? When the engineers who design the products and the techs who build them are all overseas, it’s pretty reasonable to expect that the innovations will come from those that have the know-how and experience – overseas.

  4. Also, at least most of the people on manufacturing jobs are actually producing something of value. You can’t say that for the majority of government employees.

  5. Its not just cheap labor, its lower taxes, relaxed work rules, less environmental oversight etc….

    Each of those pieces cost, when its time to make here or there decisions all of these things go onto the spread sheet.

    Lastly we are seeing unskilled wages here fall and unskilled wages there rise. What moral justification says that a detroit wrench turner is worth more than one in china, or mexico?

    I don’t think that you can argue that an American’s intrinsic value as a human being is higher.

    An american’s intrinsic value to an employeer is only higher if they are more productive. Education, work ethic, basic health, language skills etc… all go into that equation.

  6. It would be nice to see the companion graph that shows when the American family at median income began paying more in taxes than for food, clothing, and shelter — combined. IIRC we got there no later than the early 1990s.

  7. Technology has been a larger killer of “manufacturing” jobs than any regulation or outsourcing….

    * quotes exist because for a long time, admin folks in manufacturing corps were counted in the manufacturing job totals…

  8. Try building any product without the “admin” folks, MG.

    The people who organise the materials supply, outbound shipping, pay the wages, make sure the aircon etc in the factory is working properly and find customers are just as essential as the wrench turners.

  9. If we want to recover American manufacturing muscle we really should embrace the idea of having one worker per factory instead of one worker per machine. Industrial systems, prototyping, and supply chain management are creating dark factories all over. You want to beat the Chinese at cheap labor? Then work to remove human labor from the process entirely…

  10. The figure you imply is about 3%, Rand, that being the fraction of the US that is currently employed in farming, roughly speaking. I believe at the time of the Civil War it was about 45%.

    I think you’re quite right to draw the parallel, too, particularly since many of the dire predictions people make now about the consequences of the loss of manufacturing as a major employer were made in the 1840s through 1890s about the loss of farming as a major employer. Then, as now, many of the arguments tended to take on a moral overtone, arguing that as a nation we would fall into iniquity and folly if we did without the bracing experience of being a farmer, or being a wrench turner, and so on.

    Personally, I think the next century belongs to biology — particularly rational biology, e.g. biotech — and to its technological offspring, medicine. The United States is already the world leader in every aspect of this field. That sector is a huge part of our economy, and growing larger. It’s got jobs for everyone, from the Deltas who change bedpans and administer the miracle drugs through IVs right one through the Betas who manage businesses and the Alphas who dream up the new tech.

    Biotech and advanced medicine are also world-dominating technologies, just like computers and airplanes and satellites were in their day. The Chinese are investing in aircraft carriers, the Germans are investing in windfarms, and the US is investing in cheap cures for cancer, cystic fibrosis, AIDS and Alzheimer’s, not to mention even more remarkable possibilities like engineering algae to synthesize diesel, or even human babies to be immune to any and all infectious disease, have perfect eyesight, never become overweight or get high blood pressure.

    Which tech is going to be world-dominating in 2075? I don’t think one need to even think hard to answer that.

    Of course, it’s still in its infancy, and it’s still possible for the same party that cursed industrialism (the Democrats), modern finance (the Democrats), abolition of slavery (the Democrats), and pretty much every other truly progressive idea (oh the irony!) to derail things for a century or two. All it needs is a little health care “reform” to kill the golden goose.

  11. If there was a cheap way to ensure people could be born resistant to AIDS, which would be globally better? Statal healthcare that ensures everyone who wants their babies to be born safe from AIDS to have so, drawn up from a global fund, or Private healthcare that ensures only those who can afford it are free from AIDS while the others infect each other and lower productivity in general?

    There is a reason for global vaccination campaigns: it means society in general benefits if everyone is covered. IMO privatization is less than optimal in this case.

    The Chinese are still at an early stage in their development and aim to be a superpower. So of course it makes sense to invest in carriers and build a blue water navy to project their forces in places like Taiwan or even Southeast Asia. Heck, the USA invests more in carriers than the whole world combined, so I dunno why you give China such a bad rap for doing it. Even if they built a whooping two supercarriers, the USA has twelve with two more in the pipeline. No other nation has carriers in size or numbers like the USA.

    The Germans depend on Russian natural gas, so of course they are concerned about diversifying their energy supply (they are stupidly closing their nuclear power plants though). It is not like the USA which has abundant natural gas, tar sands, uranium, coming from Canada. Low density stuff like natural gas makes little financial sense to sell over anything but a pipeline, hence Europe does not usually buy natural gas from Canada. Energy dependency is a big problem in Europe in general, with few exceptions, even if it has a lower use of energy per unit of GDP than the USA. Europe is not interested in being held hostage by Russian policy like Ukraine is, which is likely to happen unless substantial investments in energy production are done now. I see more potential in solar thermal power than algae for that. Algae are good mostly for replacing automotive fuel and the French actually have some research into that, as well as diesel-electric hybrids. There is financing in producing biodiesel from rapeseed and other useless crap like that. I guess it still beats USA corn ethanol subsidies. I cannot fathom the fascination of Daimler with hydrogen vehicles though.

  12. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m scratching my head trying to figure out the relevance of “Godzilla”‘s post to the topic.

  13. Rand, I was replying to Carl.

    As for the topic, I looked at the said chart and rather than steadily declining manufacturing jobs, it looked more like steadily increasing government jobs. Manufacturing job trends, to me, seemed cyclical and due to the downturn in markets at the moment.

    I do not look nostalgically at the days most people were in farming either. In fact, I grew up in a rural community, and now most of the countryside there lies fallow since people found better stuff to do. My parents mostly worked in manufacturing production lines and from what they described to me, I do not yearn for a manufacturing job. My father nearly lost a finger over the course of that.

  14. > It would be nice to see the companion graph that shows when the American family at median income began paying more in taxes than for food, clothing, and shelter — combined.

    Huh? The median US family pays almost 0 federal income tax. (By income cohort, the tax system has become far more progressive – Bush II continued that trend.) I ignore SS because it’s essentially forced savings with a modest return for the median family. (The return is crappy for upper income folks.)

    I don’t know how the state and local taxes work out, but I’d be surprised if they were 15-20% for the median family.

    Is food and shelter less than 20% of income for the median family?

  15. “Which tech is going to be world-dominating in 2075? I don’t think one need to even think hard to answer that.”

    Really? You really think that you can predict the tech of 2075 now? Would you have predicted today’s industry and society in 1934? I don’t think so; for your information, even the theoretical basis of transistors was not developed until way after that – and transistors dominate today, for good or ill. In addition, the gap between 2075 tech and now is probably more like the gap between 15th century tech and now than the numerical figure.

    I think that you mean biotech. I would nominate nanotech, and possibly advanced AI; Moore’s Law has held for 50 years now, and another 30 years of that leads to human-brain processing power on your desk. Admittedly, the software is another matter. But after that, there is another 27 years to go till your timeline.

    Or perhaps the technology of 2075 will be based on something that isn’t yet even a gleam in a theoretician’s eye. We can’t know. Maybe if Drexler’s dreams become reality I’ll find out.

  16. Rand, you wrote: “The problem isn’t that fewer people are working in factories, per se, but that we don’t have good jobs for those who have been displaced, particularly if they remain uneducated.”

    This problem statement begs its own solution. Please peal one more layer of the nativist onion next time.

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