“Making Things”

Brian Beutler quotes Senator Sherrod Brown:

“The President’s done more on manufacturing than his predecessors, but not nearly enough,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told me in an interview Friday. “That needs a real strategy on making things. We ought to make things in this country. And it’s a strategy on a different trade policy, a different tax policy, an emphasis on working with small manufacturers.”

I continue to disagree. Obviously, it’s not viable for the United States to be a country in which no things are made. But the reality is that lots of products are manufactured in America:

What’s declined isn’t manufacturing output, it’s manufacturing employment. And I think it’s important to understand that there’s real arbitrariness in how manufacturing employment is defined. The security guard at a factory has a manufacturing job if he’s employed directly by the factory, but not if he’s employed by security firm that has a contract with the factory. Obviously, though, he has basically the same job (“security guard”) in either case, and it’s a job that has a lot in common with the security guard at the office building. If your job is to turn fresh green beans into canned green beans, you’re manufacturing. If your job is to turn fresh green beans into someone’s dinner, then you’re not manufacturing. But if people switch away from canned green beans to more restaurant meals, that’s almost certainly a sign of progress.

That neoliberal claptrap aside, I bring this up in part because I think understanding these dynamics is crucial to mounting a defense of the public sector. As we’re able to produce more material goods with fewer people, that ought to lead not only to more chefs and yoga instructors and private security guards but also more preschool teachers and cops and home health aides. There’s an argument out there that “we can’t afford” the larger public sector that’s currently projected for the future. But we can afford it, and the fact that in the future we won’t need as many manufacturing workers to have all the manufactured goods we need is a big part of the reason.