BRINGING BACK MANUFACTURING JOBS? NOSTALGIA AS PUBLIC POLICY
IT’S A LOSE-LOSE GAME THAT WILL DAMAGE AMERICA
Donald J. Trump won a surprising victory in the 2016 Presidential Election. He wasn’t supposed to win – he is unqualified, inexperienced, a bit of a crackpot, dabbling in conspiracy theories as he did during the campaign – while his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was one of the most experienced, intelligent and capable candidates we’ve ever had. So what happened?
Trump keyed into the vast undercurrents of discomfort, dislocation and uncertainties that lie just underneath the surface of the late 20th and early 21st Century period of world wide prosperity as the tentacles of globalization, technology, and democratization spread around the planet upsetting traditional – at least since World War II – social structures and patterns of living. Arguably there has never been a period in planet Earth’s history where change and the impacts of change have so undermined what has gone before in economics, politics and social organization. Probably not since the post Industrial Revolution era – the late 19th and early 20th Centuries – has so much changed so radically over such a short period of time.
It is against this backdrop of unsettling, fundamental change, change that has impacted everyone from villagers in rural India to the most advanced and sophisticated New Yorkers and Parisians, that Trump’s appeal to “Make America Great Again” took root. His exhortations to ban Muslims, to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, and to bring back high paying manufacturing jobs, all harkened back to a past where America was the planet’s unchallenged world power, the unsurpassed economic powerhouse and the sole pinnacle of democratic enlightenment around the world. This was a slightly mythical view of America’s historical role but one that provided a sop, a sinecure, to our current, less evident and less secure role and position in the world’s scheme of things. One can argue the merits of whether America was “greater” at some point in our past than it is now, but Trump’s populist appeal brought into the daylight of public discourse the unease felt by a large portion of the American populace who yearned for a time when America’s promise was clear and unchallenged, who longed for a time when they felt securely enmeshed in the story of America, our progress and our future hopes.
Such populist appeal was and is nostalgic in the extreme. This set of beliefs – that America was better at some time in its past history – is the same set that motivated the Tea Party who longed for a time when past when life was simpler, less complicated and wasn’t constrained by rules and regulations as our lives are now. The National Socialist White People’s Party and the Stormfront also believe in a past better time when African Americans knew that they were not a part of true American society, when immigrants were shunned and white folks served as the touchstone against which all other ideals, values and mores were judged. While, arguably, there was no “greater” America than the America of today, the rule of white ruling elites in the past was unchallenged and was the norm.
But along around the 1960’s when commercial aviation entered the jet age, or a few years later when satellites began beaming radio and television signals all around the planet, or when a decade or so after, the world wide internet became a reality, the world changed. An Egyptian from Alexandria could travel to Paris or Rome in just a few hours with sufficient cash and experience for himself the wonders of cultures radically different from his own. An Afghan villager could see what life was like in New York City and Tokyo and could begin to dream of one day living just like New Yorkers did. In a remote, isolated town in rural Uganda, a tailor with a small shop on a dusty street could exchange greetings and news with distant relatives who had been displaced following the brutal rise of Idi Amin. And in no other field of endeavor was this cascade of ever widening threads of technological advances more impactful than in the exchange of goods and services that had become not simply the Zimbabwean tailor crafting shirts and pants for his town mates, his family, his friends and his acquaintances but a world wide web of connections and possibilities had opened up for him should he have the initiative and imagination to take advantage of this new world of limitless interconnections.
Manufacturing jobs? They are gone. They are not coming back. In this technological age of world interconnectedness and linked futures there is simply no way – absent a world wide nuclear holocaust or a world wide Black Plaque style natural disaster – that our entire technological infrastructure can be either destroyed or re-engineered to make this happen. Amazon, one of the most successful of the new industries, is a good example of why this will never happen. Using the latest in technological advances, Amazon has created a new paradigm of consumerism. You simply boot up a computer, go online, peruse literally hundreds of thousands of products until you find the one that suits your desire and purpose, order it, pay for it and three days later it is delivered to your doorstep. Amazon’s innovation and creativity has destroyed – with our help – literally thousands of brick and mortar shops, the ones we used to patronize at our local strip shopping centers.
But deeper into the innovation that is Amazon, is the company’s means of supplying us with the goods we order from them. Used to be that department stores had vast warehouses to house goods that would eventually be shifted to their fancy brick and mortar buildings downtown. But Amazon doesn’t do this. You place an order with Amazon, they notify the company who makes (or, in reality, imports) your product, the company ships your widget to one of Amazon’s numerous vast warehouses and then Amazon through FedEx, the Post Office or UPS ships it out to you.
It’s in the Amazon warehouses where the secret of why manufacturing jobs are not going to be coming back to America is revealed. Those old fashioned brick and mortar department store warehouses employed hundreds of people to unload, catalog, shelve and monitor goods in and goods out. Not, perhaps, the best paying of jobs, but jobs nonetheless. Today’s Amazon? A ten acre warehouse may employ no more than a dozen people to handle what used to be handled by hundreds. Why? Because Amazon has used technology to replace human hands. Through bar codes, electronic sensors, and robotic machines your, purchase is cataloged, stored, retrieved, packaged and shipped with barely a human being in sight. This reliance on technology and not human beings is why Amazon has been so successful in radically redefining consumer purchasing. And why, as Amazon expands its reach from America and Europe to India, Latin America and other regions around the world, it has been so phenomenally successful.
The Amazon revolution is one that is fairly easy to understand. But the same methods, the self-same application of technologies, the same automated and robotic methods apply to manufacturing as well. Today’s automobile plant employs far, far fewer people than it used to since much of the work of assembling a new car is no longer done by human beings but by machines. By robots. Just like with Amazon. No manufacturing sector is immune to the advances wrought by new technological applications. Yes, in countries where labor is abundant and cheap, much is still done by human hands. You’ve seen pictures of those vast manufacturing plants in China with row upon row of young women sitting at long tables pushing computer chips into mother boards thereby supplying the world with televisions, computers, washing machines and cell phones. But these are not high paying, benefit rich jobs. These workers are not much more than willing slave labor given the death of other possibilities due to competition for any wage paying jobs in China. They are the American equivalent of minimum wage fast food jobs at McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King although perhaps even less desirable and remunerative.
It is not possible, much less practical, to even contemplate that Ford or General Motors or Toyota is somehow going to go backwards and replace technology with human beings again. To revert to a time when it took hundreds of men and women standing next to a long conveyor that brought a Chevrolet frame down the line and each man and woman bolted a mirror to a door frame or spray painted a roof. It simply is not going to happen. Amazon? To revert to old fashioned human hands to fulfill and manage their massive daily orders of goods would be the death of the company. It’s just not going to happen.
There was a time when good paying, benefit rich, unionized manufacturing jobs were the staple of America’s working and middle classes and served as the foundation upon which America became the world’s leading manufacturing nation like no other in history. But no more. And all the exhortations, all the promises, all the outrage against the loss of good jobs will have precisely zero impact on how our economy works and the kinds of jobs it provides.
I’m not at all certain why more folks don’t understand this reality. Is it too frightening to consider? Perhaps so. Because acknowledging this reality implies a bleak future for them. At least in the short run and at least without radical changes in public policy. While I am aware that Trump supporters – and a host of other Americans - are loathe to look eastward to Europe (yes, Socialist Europe) many European countries are doing far better than we are in proving good jobs and benefits that provide for healthy, fulfilling and prosperous lives. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, etc. have all been subjected to exactly the same sorts of radical technological changes as has America. And yet, they outperform us in health care outcomes, longevity, educational outcomes and many other life enhancing measures. It’s time we took a long, hard, objective look at why this has happened. It too was not always so. Until the latter part of the 20th Century it was America who led the way in most of these measures. But no more.
In the end, we can continue to fight the futile battle to reverse time, to stem the tide of technological advances, decry the destruction of last century methods, techniques, jobs and life patterns but that’s akin to wishing that a dead relative or loved one be restored to life. It is simply impossible. Politicians, economists and policy makers know this. At least the smart ones like Paul Krugman do. They know very well that there is no going back in time. No returning to an age that cannot be re-created. No great revitalization of manufacturing jobs that used to be. Yet they have remained silent. I suppose that this “news” would not make them popular among the public even though it is the reality we face. Trump? I suspect that he was being honest in his cries to “Make America Great Again,” to bring back all those high paying, good manufacturing jobs. After all, he has no particularly relevant experience or education or life’s work that offer him insight into why his nostalgic pining for a greater America doesn’t have a chance in hell to be materialized.
But, then too, it seems as if many millions of Americans also don’t seem to understand the reality of our new Amazon, robotic, technological age; the one in which there is no chance of ever going backwards.
Have A Good Day!