Thinking About Manufacturing

There seems to be a lot of confusion about manufacturing.

We’ll start with a few slogans that pass for generally-accepted truth:

  • Manufacturing is the core of the US economic base.
  • Restoring manufacturing is key to the viability of the US working class.
  • The Chinese have gutted manufacturing in the US.
  • The continuing decline of manufacturing is another indication of the failure of Trump’s economic policies.

One indication that something might be fundamentally wrong in all of that comes from looking at trends in the service and manufacturing sectors over the past twenty years:


To say the least, it looks like there is something more fundamental going on than politics or even globalization.   Manufacturing has been declining relative to services for many years and in a big way.  It’s not just because of China, and it’s not even just in the US:


The US has been undergoing a massive migration from a manufacturing-oriented economy to a services economy. One problem is that we don’t really have a good vocabulary to talk about that situation.  The term “services” goes from McDonald’s to Google.  But in any case manufacturing is no longer the core of national economic success.  Think about television.  The sets have become so cheap that only huge volumes can cover the low margins.  But every major company you can think of wants to get into content to run on those sets.  There are hardly even any DVD’s manufactured for that stuff anymore!

We’ve talked here before about software.  All of the leading high tech companies (including Apple) are software companies.  Software companies produce product without manufacturing.  And that’s only one of the reasons such companies can be very profitable:

– They typically sit on top of the value chain (or even, like Facebook, have only software as output)

– They tend to have monopoly power (because dominant players can afford to spend more on R&D)

– They tend to have high barriers to entry and effective customer lock-in

The world economy today has increasingly many highly-profitable dominant software companies.  Some like Google produce software; others like Apple rely on a world-wide agglomeration of highly-competitive businesses producing to their specs.  Our current national success is that we have lots of them.  Our military strength depends on their technology.  The Chinese are sensible enough to understand that’s where they want to be too.  Even in biotech—where there has to be manufacturing—you’re still talking about largely high-skilled operations in companies with a large emphasis on R&D.


It’s a little strong to say it, but it’s closer to reality than most of what we hear:  mass employment in manufacturing is like mass employment in agriculture—it has had its day.  The migration is as extreme as what happened a hundred years ago.  And we’re better off thinking about the consequences than blaming it all on the Chinese or trying to outdo each other with promises to make it go away.

That point of view is widely held (based on the figures), but somehow it hasn’t managed to penetrate public discussion.  That’s not surprising for the Trump people, since they’ve been making it all up from the beginning.  For the left it’s different.  Traditional socialism has always had an industrial flavor that is hard to give up.  Unions and trust-busting are good, but they won’t bring back the past.  Forcing businesses that take federal research money to do manufacturing here will help some but not enough to reverse the trends.

(For the left, one particular paper has been frequently cited to show manufacturing job loss is reversible.   That paper concluded that the large manufacturing job losses from 2000 to 2010 were not due to automation here.  However, for its purposes it only examined companies that remained here and checked how many robots they had.  Nothing was said about the reasons any single company had left.)

The question then is what we should do.  The key is to start considering what we see around us as reality:

  • A long-term trend of decline in manufacturing
  • Very profitable, highly technical, non-manufacturing monopolies
  • Complete neglect of domestic services for the public good

We’ve talked about those trends here before.  As we’ve noted, some of the monopoly power is structural, so it’s not clear how far we’ll get with breaking them up.  However, monopoly power means companies are far from cost-sensitive, so the last thing we need to give them is more tax breaks.  On the contrary what’s crucial is learning to tax them, and we’ve got Apple as proof of how tough that can be.

In this picture the public sector has two important roles:

  1. Preparing the country for success in the world economy. That means infrastructure of all kinds, including education and child care as much as roads and bridges. The private sector won’t do it.  But—with an appreciation for the role of government derived from the second world war—we used to do a better job of it ourselves.
  2. Making sure the wealth of the monopolies gets translated into benefits for the population. This is another case where the private sector can’t act for its own good. Henry Ford famously wanted his employees to be able to buy his cars, but that’s certainly not the ethos of today. This doesn’t mean free money, it means employing people for the unfilled tasks needed for the public good.

We need the public sector to be the means of addressing the country’s unmet needs with resources from gilded-age inequality.

It’s worth pointing out that we have been wasting resources on a spectacular scale.  Under George W. Bush we fought a $3T war with no identifiable benefit and underwent a privatization effort (including tax cuts) that ultimately produced a near-depression.   Under Obama the Republican Congress shut down government, retarding recovery and preventing the public sector from doing any of the jobs just described.  Under Trump the primary achievement has been another $2T of tax cuts, with a jump in inequality and a deficit big enough to prevent any of the infrastructure work from getting done.  That the tax cuts went straight into stock buybacks is a clear indication of irrelevance.

It is instructive to think back to the time when the country underwent the last such a drastic economic change, when we went from an agrarian to an industrial society.   People had a hard time then thinking about it.  They got tied up in an irrelevancy—the silver monetary standard—and it took a long time before the real problems of corporate power and inequality were addressed.  A contemporary Henry Demarest Lloyd expressed his frustration this way: “The free silver movement is a fake. Free silver is the cow-bird of the reform movement. It waited until the nest had been built by the sacrifices and labor of others, and then it lay its own eggs in it, pushing out the others which lie smashed on the ground.”

We have something of that problem today.  The long-standing decline in manufacturing is a continuing but unacknowledged reality.  Instead we spend our time blaming it on the immigrants, or the Chinese, or the elites, or some combination of everyone else.  Until the blame game stops we can’t begin to decide how our economy really needs to work in the world we’ve got.  For climate actions we worry about coal miners, but there are many others in the same boat.  There is an international aspect too:  we’re too busy looking for villains to spend time on making the system work for global prosperity.

For our part we think it’s time for the public sector to come in from the cold.   In any case it’s time to stop talking about free silver.




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