Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Create value. Make stuff if necessary

I'm often confused why we celebrate manufacturing as much as we do. The goal is to "create value" for other people as I blogged about yesterday - to serve in meaningful ways. Some services are more urgent than others, some more luxurious, some more faddish, and some of them involve turning one thing into another thing someone wants more than what it used to be. I turn ingredients into restaurant meals, I'm classified as a service worker. I turn metal into injectors, I'm classified as a manufacturing worker. The point is still the same - create value for fellow human beings. Why do we love manufacturing?

An Atlantic article on manufacturing in America has some very intelligent discussion, some of which tries to help me answer this. From the 1940s to 1970s, manufacturing was a pathway forwards and that got embedded into the psyche:
All came to work unskilled, at first, and then slowly learned things, on the job, that made them more valuable. Especially in the mid-20th century, as manufacturing employment was rocketing toward its zenith, mistakes and disadvantages in childhood and adolescence did not foreclose adult opportunity.
But now a hefty part of the growing inequality in the US is from opposing forces:

Economists speak of the middle part of the 20th century as the “Great Compression,” the time when the income of the unskilled came closest to the income of the skilled. ... The double shock we’re experiencing now—globalization and computer-aided industrial productivity—happens to have the opposite impact: income inequality is growing, as the rewards for being skilled grow and the opportunities for unskilled Americans diminish.
And yet, Davidson manages to avoid overly-romanticising preserving manufacturing jobs for the sake of having jobs that very few people aspire to today:
Is there a crisis in manufacturing in America? Looking just at the dollar value of manufacturing output, the answer seems to be an emphatic no. Domestic manufacturers make and sell more goods than ever before. Their success has been grounded in incredible increases in productivity, which is a positive way of saying that factories produce more with fewer workers.
Productivity, in and of itself, is a remarkably good thing. Only through productivity growth can the average quality of human life improve. Because of higher agricultural productivity, we don’t all have to work in the fields to make enough food to eat. Because of higher industrial productivity, few of us need to work in factories to make the products we use. In theory, productivity growth should help nearly everyone in a society. When one person can grow as much food or make as many car parts as 100 used to, prices should fall, which gives everyone in that society more purchasing power; we all become a little richer. In the economic models, the benefits of productivity growth should not go just to the rich owners of capital. As workers become more productive, they should be able to demand higher salaries.
"Only through productivity growth can the average quality of human life improve." Hence, Tabarrok arguing that India needs fewer farmers.

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