Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The factory-less future

I don't know Gregg Easterbrook; in fact, I don't believe I have read any of this journalist's work before I came across a contribution in the February 22 issue of Newsweek magazine. First a disclaimer; I have been a subscriber to this weekly news magazine for more years that I care to count. Recently this magazine--partly because of the economic upheaval in the publishing business and as defense against the inroads of the Web--reorganized itself and appointed a new editor, Jon Meacham, who, with the publisher's blessings I am sure, proceeded to rip apart what was once a nice weekly news roundup turning it into a Washington-centric collection of essays by a gaggle of columnists and contributors who churn out sometimes ponderous editorial on a broad range of subjects, much of which is of little interest to me.

I know, in order to be well read so that I can comment on current situations I should read all that is published on those subjects that require my opinion. I do occasionally find some useful information in the Newsweek pages, which I have commented on in my Blogs. But, frankly, the print version of Newsweek no longer appeals to me and I prefer their Web page, which fills in for the editorial makeup of the old Newsweek. All the more reason I will let my subscription lapse, unfortunately not until September of 2012.

So Meacham's decision to print an excerpt from Easterbrook's 2009 book, Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed (Random House) is not a surprise because it is another in a string of analyses that is better left to more weighty publications, not to what I presumed to be a news magazine.

The excerpt titled "The Boom is nigh," subheaded, "Why the coming recovery will hurt like hell," is actually worth a read and to a degree echoes what we are hearing and reading about these days; you know, a "jobless recovery" etc. What caused my temperature to rise on first reading the essay is the paragraph; "Manufacturing will be obsolete," which is quoted below.

The factory-based economy is nearly over, because of technological improvements. Fifteen years ago, Boeing took 22 days to build a 737 airliner; today, it takes 12 days. Such changes mean fewer factory jobs, even as production rises. China is losing factory jobs much faster than the United States, as efficiency improves. Soon there won't be any nation with a factory-based economy, and that would have happened regardless of whether there was trade liberalization. Higher productivity, in turn, generates the social wealth that creates more jobs for teachers, health-care providers, and other essential needs. The world is actually better off with declining factory employment, which is no consolation if you lost a job.

A day later I went back and read it again, after first Goggling Easterbrook to see who he is and what in his background qualifies him to be an expert on manufacturing, before I attacked him for knowing nothing about this sector of the economy in the U.S, or around the world. Because this is an excerpt I suppose I should read the book to see what lies behind the condensed thinking in the Newsweek excerpt. I would but, frankly, I am not interested in his observations and thinking. That is why I subscribed to Newsweek; to read what the editor thinks is worthwhile for me to be aware of. So I Goggled Meachem and found that he too has no background or credentials that would make him a manufacturing expert. And yet, Easterbrook and Meacham both thought the observations on the future state of manufacturing were important enough to appear in the condensed pages.

Easterbrook seems to be caught up with technology and productivity, two aspects of manufacturing in the U.S. that have allowed this country to survive in this period of globalization. His comments on shrinking manufacturing jobs would be appropriate if world markets never increase, as he cites efficiency as the main culprit. But the sentence on factory-based efficiency left me scratching my head. If the great surge in productivity spells the end of employment gains and a factory-based economy, where will manufacturing take place, in a field outside major cities in Africa? Productivity means producing abundantly or effectively, and in manufacturing it is a cover word for automation and labor reduction. Easterbrook sees this as good because its effect is the creation of jobs for non-manufacturing people. And he sums this up by saying the world will be better off with declining factory employment. I can just see the union bosses firing off e-mail to Meachem on this.

Then it occurred to me, Meacham has a hidden agenda; to publish controversial or debatable essays and build readership by challenging us to do some deep thinking and to care less about the Olympics. At least I think this is what he is up to with his makeover at Newsweek; if so, it's looking like a failure to me.

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