Monday, May 27, 2013

Industrial Decline as a Red Herring

David Simon had another rant quoted in the Guardian.  It was mostly true -- the war on drugs as a war on black people -- but it reminded me of something that rings false in Simon and many others on the contemporary left- their bemoaning of America's industrial decline.

This is not just a left-wing phenomenon.  It is found across the political spectrum -- people generally agree that American manufacturing has declined (which is true, in employment terms) and that this is the cause of the problems of the American working class.

I would dispute the last part of this conventional wisdom.  To start with, there is no necessary connection between highly paid, lower-skilled jobs and the manufacturing sector.  Indeed, the manufacturing jobs that remain in this country mostly either require advanced technical degrees, or pay somewhere in the vicinity of $10 an hour.  Working in a factory does not magically transform the working class into the middle class, and shuttering factories does not magically transform them into the working poor.

No, the reason why factory jobs used to be so good was because of the strength of American labor, and because we were a society that had decided that working people should be able to live the American dream, even if they're not anesthesiologists.  The problem is not the sort of labor that Americans are doing, but our nation's devaluation of labor in general*.  The services industry is, unlike manufacturing, extremely resistant to offshoring (we need people to work in our stores, in America) -- the problem is that we have decided that it's fine that our legions of restaurant and retail employees make $8 an hour.  Wringing out hands about the decline of factories does nothing to help the million or so Americans working at Wal Marts across the nation.  The factories are not coming back (at least not in their previous, labor-intensive, form) but there is plenty we could do to help the American working class, by getting serious about the workers of the service industry.

*Perhaps our romanticization of blue-collar works only helps to devalue pink-collar work, as we act as though pink-collar jobs are intrinsically not valuable, unlike those begone heroes at the Ford plant.

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