Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Manufacturing Jobs (it's the economy stupid)

Image source Library of Congress - 11 year old Nannie Coleson

When pundits and politicians talk about the economy they talk about growth. “Is the economy growing?”

I’ve often wondered how something can infinitely grow.

And with a consumer-based economy, how can we infinitely consume? Isn’t there a point where I have most of what I need? Even if we go with the model of continually replacing everything we have due to changes in fashion or “upgrading,” won’t this plateau? As an economic model/goal, how is this even practical? The only way it makes sense for the economy to continually grow is for the population to continually grow. Logically there has to be a limit to this.

Jobs. Manufacturing jobs.

I shop at Target. On very rare occasions I shop at Walmart. I buy a lot of cardigans and tees. I always check prices. If something is $24 or higher, I hesitate. Sometimes I wait for it to go on sale. The things I buy are made in places like China. Things that are made in the United States I largely can’t afford. Most Americans are in a similar or worse economic state. We spend a lot of time working on the appearance of how we are doing and struggling behind the scenes. The sweaters I buy at Target are thin and cheap and only have the appearance of their more expensive cousins.

We talk about bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Somehow we’re going to out compete places like China. China is attractive to manufacturers because wages are low and the environmental regulations are less stringent. The conditions of workers in Apple’s Chinese manufacturing sites have been widely discussed. Similarly there has been media attention given to garment workers in countries like Bangladesh and India. Beijing struggles with air pollution.

China Air Pollution Woes

I own an Iphone and I buy the clothes.

Can we manufacture goods in the U.S. at costs that will make them competitive? Will we, SHOULD WE, produce the conditions that would make this possible? If we impose tariffs, will American workers be able to afford the goods they produce?

As automation becomes more prevalent, and it is inevitable that technology will continue to replace human workers, what then?

We the “99%”* are addicted to the cheap goods produced by suppressed and often slave wages. Corporations are addicted to the profits that this system feeds them.

Corporate executives make millions for the profits they are able to provide to their investors. Workers struggle. Their low wages are a very real part of this system. I’m not the first to say it, but for manufacturing to be viable in the U.S., we need to turn to the manufacture of high-end commodities with a consumer price point that can sustain a living wage. This however will require an educated and trained workforce and consequently an investment in this education. Yet education and training is increasingly out of reach.

At every level there is a call for “fiscal responsibility” as more and more of various cost burdens are shifted onto the “99%”. At every turn the profit gatherers seek to extract an extra dollar or dime.

We have seen what deregulation looks like. Study the history of the 19th and 20th centuries: child labor, pollution, killer smogs, the shirtwaist fire, Black Tuesday, etc.

I think we need paradigms, new indicators of economic health and public wellbeing.

We need, I think, to stop listening to what sounds good (and easy) and actually deal with the quality of the lives we are producing. Life is too short. We should not live only to work and struggle.

*I’m not fond of the term “99%” but I use it here to stand in for all working classes: middle, low and poverty.

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