Monday, July 04, 2011

The bad old days

Do you want to be a farmer? I don’t. But around 1900 there was a lot of gnashing of teeth and wailing about rising urbanization and the loss of agricultural jobs. Of course, as we (hopefully) all understand today, the important thing was producing a lot of food inexpensively. The “decline” of the US agricultural sector was never a reality in terms of output — only in terms of its declining share of employment. Agricultural workers freed up from the farming grind are today’s manufacturing and service workers.
It seems crazy to lament this economic shift, but folks are making the same mistake today with the supposed demise of the manufacturing sector. Like agriculture in 1900, manufacturing output has never been higher. So on this basis, the manufacturing sector is as strong as ever. The only thing that has changed is that manufacturing’s share of employment has declined. Yesterday’s blue collar worker is now a service or office worker.
It is particularly odd that the Left should today be the one’s lamenting the job shift away from manufacturing and expressing nostalgia for the 1950′s. When I grew up in the 1970′s, the soul-sucking mindless dangerous awfulness of manufacturing work was a big concern of the Left. They wanted nice, clean, more cerebral and rewarding jobs for manufacturing workers, but now, never satisfied, they want the opposite.
Absolutely right. Let's remember what agriculture absent the productivity-enhancing miracle of mechanization looks like:

Backbreaking, horrible stuff -- no wonder so many Mexicans would rather work in a maquiladora. And here's a look at manufacturing in this country prior to the introduction of amazing machines that took the place of many workers:

Those jobs that haven't been lost to machines have been shipped to places like China, where they aren't hugely different from what we see in these old pictures:

Now when we think of manufacturing in this country, the image that springs to mind is probably something more like this:

There's a lot of mourning for the demise of manufacturing jobs that pay a decent wage. But remember, the reason that manufacturing jobs can pay such wages in the first place is due to the introduction of robots and other machines that have boosted productivity (more stuff=more money=higher salaries) and reduced the need for so many employees. Many of the jobs that were transferred overseas, meanwhile, weren't that great to start with. Let's not romantacize a past that never was.

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