Friday, November 18, 2011

Manufacturing and Meaning

A really interesting article from Aditya Chakrabortty on the decline of manufacturing in the UK, and the long-term impacts that are not just economic but also social and cultural. He argues that, in addition to jobs and income, "making things" brought a sense of purpose and social cohesion, and the "service economy" that has filled the void has been distinctly underwhelming:
And yet many of the arguments that preoccupy the British are haunted by the spectre of manufacturing. Angry at the overweening power of banks? Then you want a more mixed economy. Distressed at the gap between the rich and the rest of society? In the end, that will require jobs with decent wages and skill-levels, like the old manufacturing jobs. This applies to non-economic debates, too. Politicians go on about localism, without discussing what de-industrialisation has done to local economies. Pundits bemoan the loss of community spirit without considering the wrecking ball that has been put through many communities.

It's worth noting that the social history was summed up at the time by a certain Anglo-Scottish rock band.

A theoretical discussion of the same theme is offered by Dani Rodrik (a slightly more wonkish version here):

...the manufacturing sector is also where the world’s middle classes take shape and grow. Without a vibrant manufacturing base, societies tend to divide between rich and poor – those who have access to steady, well-paying jobs, and those whose jobs are less secure and lives more precarious. Manufacturing may ultimately be central to the vigor of a nation’s democracy....
...the service industries that have absorbed the labor released from manufacturing are a mixed bag. At the high end, finance, insurance, and business services, taken together, have productivity levels that are similar to manufacturing. These industries have created some new jobs, but not many – and that was before the financial crisis erupted in 2008. The bulk of new employment has come in “personal and social services,” which is where the economy’s least productive jobs are found. This migration of jobs down the productivity ladder has shaved 0.3 percentage points off US productivity growth every year since 1990 – roughly one-sixth of the actual gain over this period. The growing proportion of low-productivity labor has also contributed to rising inequality in American society.

No comments: