American Manufacturing is Very Productive

Terry Tamminem at Grist has one of those pieces about how manufacturing of clean tech can save America’s ailing manufacturing sector:

Growing up in the 1950s, “Made in Japan” was synonymous with “cheap junk.” Responding to the needs of a world that hungered for more labor-saving devices, Japanese manufacturers shifted to higher-value products and quality improved. Today, “Land of the Rising Sun” companies like Honda boast the hydrogen-powered Clarity automobile and Toto makes high-tech toilets that do everything from chemically analyze your urine to heat water that massages your backside.

In those same decades, American manufacturing has gone from the global leader in innovation and quality to a laggard in producing almost anything. Just as Japan reinvented its manufacturing base ahead of massive global economic and technological demand, can “Made in America” once again mean something special — this time ahead of the needs of both the economy and the environment?

The current recession has hit everyone outside the government/health/education sectors quite hard, but as I’ve pointed out before the image of an ailing US manufacturing sector stuck in long-term decline is just wrong. America’s industrial output has been on a steadily upward trajectory since 1970, just like it was before 1970:


What’s been declining is manufacturing employment. But that’s the reverse of America being “a laggard in producing almost anything.” We’re really good at producing stuff, hence fewer people than ever are employed doing it. It’s like how we grow more food than we did 100 years ago with fewer farmers.

That’s not to deny the very real problems facing manufacturing-oriented communities or the possibility that cleantech jobs could help solve those problems. But the first step to solving problems is to identify what the problems are. In particular, the quantity and quality of labor market opportunities for men without college degrees has gotten much worse. But that’s not because America has forgotten how to “make things.”