THERE IS A CONCEIT AMONG THE MANAGEMENT CLASS — particularly members of that class who style themselves as left-of-center — that if we just send millions of former workers from our devastated manufacturing sector to college so they can become website designers or something, that will make up for destroying the industries that formerly provided them a decent living. One of former President Clinton’s more annoying habits has been to harp on this particular hypothesis.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that plan isn’t going to work —
at least not in a place of the scale, history and complexity of the
United States. Heck, I’ll go ahead and put a fine point on it: It’s a
bunch of nonsense.
I mean, look: The Swiss are few enough that they can be the world’s
bankers, and the Saudis can be the world’s oil company. But the United
States, if it’s going to be a prosperous place, needs to be where the
main engine of prosperity is taking raw materials, making something
valuable out of them and then selling those valuable things at a profit.
We can’t be a first-tier economy by selling each other life insurance
and software; we need to make things — physical,
need-machine-tools-to-make-them things like cars, boats, clothing,
machine tools and electronics. The Democratic Party’s leadership used to
know this, and acted accordingly, with all kinds of support for (real,
actual) industry and its (real, actual) workers. These days, however,
Democrats seem to represent members of the management class who want to
send line workers and former machinists to college so they can become
computer programmers. It’s ridiculous.
There are millions of ex-manufacturing workers who used to make a
good living by making things here in the U.S. The “Old Economy” offered
them a way to use their skills and gifts and afford the basics of life,
plus a little fun. But the “New Economy” has no real place for them.
Those with less than a college degree have precious few ways to support a
family in anything approaching comfort. And even these avenues are
Here’s the thing: There are millions of folks who are, to be blunt,
not smart enough, or at least temperamentally unsuited — or,
increasingly, too poor — to go to college. Are they to be consigned to
working at 7/11 and making $9 an hour for the rest of their lives? Don’t
we as citizens have an obligation to see that they have something
better to aspire to — work that allows them to support their families in
a dignified way, and maybe even to put something away for college for
the kids and themselves in their golden years?
These questions have not been asked of Americans in any public and
consistent way for years — decades, even. The very phrase, “we, as
citizens, are obligated to …” is, in the libertarian, Hobbesian world of
economic mercilessness we’ve allowed to flourish a nonsensical phrase
full of meaningless words. We are no longer “citizens,” active
participants in the building of our civilization; we are now
“consumers,” defined by our economic worth — mere cogs in the
soul-impoverishing machinery of “wealth creation” and economic
oligarchy. Our part is to passively keep the whole corrupt machine
humming. Nothing is demanded of us but to CONSUME.
If we want a different future, we must address the needs of our
workers to find meaningful and rewarding work. For that we need an
official industrial policy. The U.S. is the only so-called First World
nation without one, and it shows.
Did you ever wonder why Germany seems to be the go-to place for
high-quality goods of every sort — cars, clocks, precision instruments,
electronics, cameras and other optical equipment, and so on? A big
reason is that the German government has decided that it wants an
economy that produces those things, and has taken specific actions to
achieve that goal.
Germany’s method of creating wealth is not hard to understand, and in principle would be simple to duplicate here in the United States:
1. They make it a national priority to produce a highly educated work
force. And “education” doesn’t necessarily mean college — while the
German higher education system is excellent, they also place a far greater
emphasis on vocational training than the United States does. Most of the people who actually build
BMW cars in Germany’s factories do not need a college education to do
so, but they do need familiarity with precision, computerized machinery, plus deep and detailed training in various materials-handling skills, and so on.
2. Germany then takes that highly educated work force and puts to work designing
and manufacturing sophisticated, precision products for high wages.
3. It then exports those products at high prices and then re-invests the rewards back into their education system.
Germany is the second biggest exporter in the world despite having
slightly less than a third of America’s population and about 7 percent
of the largest exporter, China. The Germans realize they cannot beat
either China or India based on cost. America can’t either: We could
destroy all the remaining unions, get rid of the minimum wage and
eliminate all social benefits and taxation and we would still lose jobs
to low-wage nations. Germany avoided going down America’s road toward
middle class ruin by investing public resources in training their workforce
and in research.
Such an approach is possible in the United States, but to get there, we as citizens must realize — more
than that, we must decide, and then act on the decision — that, to coin a
phrase, the economy is made by and for us, and not us for the economy.