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Robert Reich: The Future of Manufacturing, GM, and American Workers

June 2, 2009

(Part I)

What’s the Administration’s specific aim in bailing out GM? I’ll give you my theory later.

For now, though, some background. First and most broadly, it doesn’t make sense for America to try to maintain or enlarge manufacturing as a portion of the economy. Even if the U.S. were to seal its borders and bar any manufactured goods from coming in from abroad–something I don’t recommend–we’d still be losing manufacturing jobs. That’s mainly because of technology.

When we think of manufacturing jobs, we tend to imagine old-time assembly lines populated by millions of blue-collar workers who had well-paying jobs with good benefits. But that picture no longer describes most manufacturing. I recently toured a U.S. factory containing two employees and 400 computerized robots. The two live people sat in front of computer screens and instructed the robots. In a few years this factory won’t have a single employee on site, except for an occasional visiting technician who repairs and upgrades the robots.

Factory jobs are vanishing all over the world. Even China is losing them. The Chinese are doing more manufacturing than ever, but they’re also becoming far more efficient at it. They’ve shuttered most of the old state-run factories. Their new factories are chock full of automated and computerized machines. As a result, they don’t need as many manufacturing workers as before.

Economists at Alliance Capital Management took a look at employment trends in twenty large economies and found that between 1995 and 2002–before the asset bubble and subsequent bust–twenty-two million manufacturing jobs disappeared. The United States wasn’t even the biggest loser. We lost about 11% of our manufacturing jobs in that period, but the Japanese lost 16% of theirs. Even developing nations lost factory jobs: Brazil suffered a 20% decline, and China had a 15% drop.

What happened to manufacturing? In two words, higher productivity. As productivity rises, employment falls because fewer people are needed. In this, manufacturing is following the same trend as agriculture. A century ago, almost 30% of adult Americans worked on a farm. Nowadays, fewer than 5% do. That doesn’t mean the U.S. failed at agriculture. Quite the opposite. American agriculture is a huge success story. America can generate far larger crops than a century ago with far fewer people. New technologies, more efficient machines, new methods of fertilizing, better systems of crop rotation, and efficiencies of large scale have all made farming much more productive.

Manufacturing is analogous. In America and elsewhere around the world, it’s a success. Since 1995, even as manufacturing employment has dropped around the world, global industrial output has risen more than 30%.

We should stop pining after the days when millions of Americans stood along assembly lines and continuously bolted, fit, soldered or clamped what went by. Those days are over. And stop blaming poor nations whose workers get very low wages. Of course their wages are low; these nations are poor. They can become more prosperous only by exporting to rich nations. When America blocks their exports by erecting tariffs and subsidizing our domestic industries, we prevent them from doing better. Helping poorer nations become more prosperous is not only in the interest of humanity but also wise because it lessens global instability.

Want to blame something? Blame new knowledge. Knowledge created the electronic gadgets and software that can now do almost any routine task.”

Want to blame something? Blame new knowledge. Knowledge created the electronic gadgets and software that can now do almost any routine task. This goes well beyond the factory floor. America also used to have lots of elevator operators, telephone operators, bank tellers and service-station attendants. Remember? Most have been replaced by technology. Supermarket check-out clerks are being replaced by automatic scanners. The Internet has taken over the routine tasks of travel agents, real estate brokers, stock brokers and even accountants. With digitization and high-speed data networks a lot of back office work can now be done more cheaply abroad.

Any job that’s even slightly routine is disappearing from the U.S. But this doesn’t mean we are left with fewer jobs. It means only that we have fewer routine jobs, including traditional manufacturing. When the U.S. economy gets back on track, many routine jobs won’t be returning–but new jobs will take their place. A quarter of all Americans now work in jobs that weren’t listed in the Census Bureau’s occupation codes in 1967. Technophobes, neo-Luddites and anti-globalists be warned: You’re on the wrong side of history. You see only the loss of old jobs. You’re overlooking all the new ones.

The reason they’re so easy to overlook is that so much of the new value added is invisible. A growing percent of every consumer dollar goes to people who analyze, manipulate, innovate and create. These people are responsible for research and development, design and engineering. Or for high-level sales, marketing and advertising. They’re composers, writers and producers. They’re lawyers, journalists, doctors and management consultants. I call this “symbolic analytic” work because most of it has to do with analyzing, manipulating and communicating through numbers, shapes, words, ideas.

Symbolic-analytic work can’t be directly touched or held in your hands, as goods that come out of factories can be. In fact, many of these tasks are officially classified as services rather than manufacturing. Yet almost whatever consumers buy these days, they’re paying more for these sorts of tasks than for the physical material or its assemblage. On the back of every iPod is the notice “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China.” You can bet iPod’s design garners a bigger share of the iPod’s purchase price than its assembly.

The biggest challenge we face over the long term — beyond the current depression — isn’t how to bring manufacturing back. It’s how to improve the earnings of America’s expanding army of low-wage workers who are doing personal service jobs in hotels, hospitals, big-box retail stores, restaurant chains, and all the other businesses that need bodies but not high skills. More on that to come.

(Part II)

Symbolic analysts have been hit by the current downturn, just as everyone else has. But over the long term, symbolic analysts will do just fine – as long as they stay away from job functions that are becoming routinized. They will continue to benefit from economic change. Computer technology gives them more tools for thinking, creating and communicating. The global market gives them more potential customers for their insights.

To be sure, symbolic analysts are popping up all over the world. More than half of all Fortune 500 companies say they’re outsourcing some software development or expanding their own development centers outside the U.S. But apart from recessions, demand for symbolic analysts in the U.S. will continue to grow faster than the supply. Innovation creates that demand, and demand for it, in turn, generates more innovation.

It’s simply wrong to assume a zero-sum game among nations. There is no finite amount of symbolic-analytic work to be parceled out around the globe. There is no limit to the capacity of the human brain to discover new problems needing to be solved, or to create better solutions to old problems. And no limit to the number of problems needing solutions.

In decades to come, nations with the highest percentages of their working populations able to do symbolic-analytic tasks will have the highest standard of living and be the most competitive internationally.

America’s biggest challenge is to educate more of our people sufficiently to excel at such tasks. We do remarkably well with the children from relatively affluent families. Our universities are the envy of the world. and no other nation surpasses us in providing intellectual and creative experience within entire regions specializing in one or another kind of symbolic analytic work (LA for music and film, Silicon Valley for software and the Internet, greater Boston for bio-med engineering, and so on).

We’re in danger of losing ground because too many of our kids, especially those from lower-middle class and poor families, can’t get the foundational education they need.”

But we’re in danger of losing ground because too many of our kids, especially those from lower-middle class and poor families, can’t get the foundational education they need. The consequence is a yawning gap in income and wealth which continues to widen. More and more of our working people finds themselves in the local service economy — in hotels, hospitals, restaurant chains, and big-box retailers — earning low wages with little or no benefits. Unions could help raise their wages by giving them more bargaining leverage. A higher minimum wage and larger Earned Income Tax Credit could help as well.

Not all of our young people can or should receive a four-year college degree, but we can do far better for them than we’re doing now. At the least, every young person should have access to a year or two beyond high school, in order to gain a certificate attesting to their expertise in a particular area of technical competence. Technicians who install, upgrade, and service automated and computerized machinery — office technicians, auto technicians, computer technicians, environmental technicians — will be in ever-greater demand.

Some argue that even if I’m correct about all this, the erosion of traditional manufacturing impedes the capacity of Americans to learn important symbolic-analytic tasks, because such learning depends on an intimate understanding of the manufacturing process. This may be true for a few of these tasks: manufacturing engineers surely need to know manufacturing inside out and some design engineers need that knowledge as well. But most symbolic analysts do not. Whatever they need to learn about manufacturing can usually be discovered online.

Others argue we need more manufacturing in the U.S. because our national security depends on it. That seems doubtful. U.S. military contractors subcontract all over the world. As long as they diversify their sources so as not to be dependent on one location or country, we’re safe. In the unlikely event that much of the rest of the world where manufacturing is now done suddenly turns on us, we can create the factories and equipment we need. We’ve mobilized for war before, quite successfully.

Still others say that eventually the dollar will drop so low that global firms will find it profitable to locate traditional manufacturing assembly in the United States. Don’t hold your breath. But if and when that should happen, Americans will be far poorer than even low-wage workers are today, because everything we purchase from anywhere will be far more costly.

Obviously, the market is fallible, as we’ve recently and painfully experienced. And sometimes we need to consider what’s good for our economy and society as a whole regardless of where the market may lead us. But that’s exactly where I depart from those who believe we need to protect or bring back traditional manufacturing in the United States. To do so would be enormously costly. I just don’t get how those costs can possibly be justified.

[So,] where does GM come in?

(Part III)

As president of General Motors when Eisenhower tapped him to become secretary of defense in 1953, “Engine Charlie” Wilson voiced at his Senate confirmation hearing what was then the conventional view. When asked whether he could make a decision in the interest of the US that was adverse to the interest of GM, he said he could.

Then he reassured them that such a conflict would never arise. “I cannot conceive of one because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country.”

Wilson was only slightly exaggerating. At the time, the fate of GM was inextricably linked to that of the nation. In 1953, GM was the world’s biggest manufacturer, the symbol of US economic might. It generated 3 per cent of US gross national product. GM’s expansion in the 1950s was credited with stalling a business slump. It was also America’s largest employer, with over 460,000 employees. Its blue-collar workers received (in today’s dollars) $60 an hour that year in wages and benefits.

Today, Wal-Mart is America’s largest employer, the majority of whose employees receive just over $10 an hour. And General Motors is filing for bankruptcy. Wilson’s reassuring words in 1953 now have an ironic twist. There will be little difference between what is good for America and for GM because it is soon to be owned by US taxpayers who have forked out more than $60 billion to buy it.

Many younger Americans have never bought a GM car and would not think of doing so.”

But why would US taxpayers want to own today’s GM? Surely not because the shares promise a high return when the economy turns up. GM has been on a downward slide for years. In the 1960s, consumer advocate Ralph Nader revealed its cars were unsafe. In the 1970s, Middle East oil producers showed its cars were uneconomic. In the 1980s, Japanese auto makers exposed them as unreliable and costly. Many younger Americans have never bought a GM car and would not think of doing so. Given this record, it seems doubtful that taxpayers will even be repaid our $60 billion. But getting repaid cannot be the main goal of the bail-out. Presumably, the reason is to serve some larger public purpose. But the goal is not obvious.

It cannot be to preserve GM jobs, because the US Treasury has signaled GM must slim to get the cash. The company has only slightly more than 60,000 Americans today (83,000 around the world), and plans to shut half-a-dozen factories and sack at least 20,000 more U.S. workers this year. It has already culled its dealership network. Plans call for laying off another 18,000 U.S. workers by the end of 2010.

The purpose cannot be to create a new, lean, debt-free company that might one day turn a profit. That is what the private sector is supposed to achieve on its own and what a reorganization under bankruptcy would do.

Nor is the purpose of the bail-out to create a new generation of fuel-efficient cars. Congress has already given auto makers money to do this. Besides, the Treasury has said it has no interest in being an active investor or telling the industry what cars to make.

The only practical purpose I can imagine for the bail-out is to slow the decline of GM to create enough time for its workers, suppliers, dealers and communities to adjust to its eventual demise. Yet if this is the goal, surely there are better ways to allocate $60 billion than to buy GM? The funds would be better spent helping the Midwest diversify away from cars, as the auto industry continues to shrink. And eventually, for the reasons stated in Parts I and II of this series, diversify away from manufacturing assembly. Cash could be used to retrain car workers, giving them extended unemployment insurance as they retrain.

But US politicians dare not talk openly about industrial adjustment because the public does not want to hear about it. A strong constituency wants to preserve jobs and communities as they are, regardless of the public cost. Another equally powerful group wants to let markets work their will, regardless of the short-term social costs. Polls show most Americans are against bailing out GM, but if their own jobs were at stake I am sure they would have a different view.

So the Obama administration is, in effect, paying $60 billion to buy off both constituencies. It is telling the first group that jobs and communities dependent on GM will be better preserved because of the bail-out, and the second that taxpayers and creditors will be rewarded by it. But it is not telling anyone the complete truth: GM will disappear, eventually. The bail-out is designed to give the economy time to reduce the social costs of the blow.

Behind all of this is a growing public fear, of which GM’s demise is a small but telling part. Half a century ago, the prosperity of America’s middle class was one of democratic capitalism’s greatest triumphs. By the time Wilson left GM, almost half of all US families fell within the middle range of income. Most were headed not by professionals or executives but by skilled and semi-skilled factory workers. Jobs were steady and health benefits secure. Americans were becoming more equal economically.

But starting three decades ago, these trends have been turned upside down. Middle-class jobs that do not need a college degree are disappearing. Job security is all but gone. And the nation is more unequal. GM in its heyday was the model of economic security and widening prosperity. Its decline has mirrored the disappearance of both.

Middle-class taxpayers worry they cannot afford to bail out companies like GM. Yet they worry they cannot afford to lose their jobs. Wilson’s edict, too, has been turned upside down: in many ways, what has been bad for GM has been bad for much of America. The answer is not to bail out GM. It is to smooth the way to a new, post-manufacturing economy.

Robert Reich.JPGRobert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism, which is now out in paperback). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2009 Robert B. Reich

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