As a social-egalitarian, I’m less upset. If you care about having a society where nobody kowtows to anybody else, retail jobs seem distinctly less desirable than manufacturing jobs.In retail you have to fawn over the customer–often in person–and if the customer balks, maybe he’s rejecting you, including your appearance and dress. Manufacturing you make something, and then the distant consumer buys it or doesn’t, a decision that has little to do with your personal appeal.It’s not a big difference, but the latter relationship seems more like a relationship among equals than the former.
This, expressed with Kaus’ usual good sense and balance, captures the concern that manufacturing jobs not only pay better than their successors: they give workers more self respect. It is more dignified to make stuff than to serve people — better to make shoes than to sell them.Gender subtext alert: Sometimes the concern over the decline of manufacturing jobs reflects a fear of the “feminization” of workers generally. Those who say it is “better” to make things rather than wait tables are sometimes importing gender-based hierarchies. If a task is less “manly”, it is more demeaning and perhaps should be less well paid.Gender issues aside, the specter of postindustrial society means to many people, I think, something like this: increased inequality as white collar workers prosper and blue collar workers take it in the chin, and a collapse of dignity and pride as people who once would have worked on assembly lines scrounge for tips in restaurants, dancing attendance on Ivy League yuppies, mopping their floors, laughing at their jokes.Another way of expressing these fears is to advance the common, though muddled, idea that “making things” is the only way a society can survive. A lot of people worry that we can’t all make a living planning weddings, teaching tai chi and holding therapy sessions for pets. Somebody somewhere has to be making “real stuff” or the Chinese etc. will not take our worthless money and we will all starve to death in a country that has forgotten how to produce.This last view is almost clinically insane; America remains an extraordinarily productive economy. We grow much more food than we did 125 years ago when half the population was employed in agriculture, and we manufacture many more (and much better) products than we did forty-odd years ago when a quarter of the workforce worked in factories. But if it doesn’t make sense as a factual assessment of where we stand, it points to deep insecurity about where we are headed.As people try to wrap their heads around this problem, they come up with different policy ideas based on their diagnosis of the problem. One strong current both in Europe (where these fears are also rampant) and the US is the “bitter blue clinger” school. The BBC camp wants protectionism, government subsidies and anything else that can save traditional industrial society because they don’t believe that anything better is possible. The BBC folks also don’t like immigration. Often, the electoral base of this school is among unionized industrial workers, especially those old enough so that extending the life of the old system by a few decades makes a big difference.That BBC worldview is the view of Democratic party fundamentalists; most Democratic reformers think that the industrial age can be revived if we just make it smarter. The “Atari Democrats” of the Paul Tsongas and Gary Hart era were the first to claim this territory; today the advocates of industrial policy, green jobs, and high speed rail follow in the tradition. If we move up the industrial food chain from clunky old style products to cutting edge, high-tech ones, the reformers believe, we can maintain a large enough manufacturing job base to prevent postindustrial meltdown.The other half of the Atari Democrat prescription, now and thirty years ago, is to upgrade the education and skill level of the workforce. That is partly because the smart industrial jobs may need more training, and partly because the Atari Democrats believe that manufacturing decline cannot be entirely prevented, and since college educated workers do better in a declining industrial economy, we should get everyone or at least as many people as possible a college degree.Bitter Clingers and Ataris disagree on many things. Bitter Clingers see globalization as an enemy to be resisted; Atari Democrats think that the dynamic new high-tech products they expect to make will benefit from an open global economy. Bitter Clingers generally hate finance capital; Atari Democrats think it can be tweaked and regulated to support the kinds of growth they hope to promote. Bitter Clingers are unreconstructed supporters of both public and private sector unions; Ataris would like to prune the public sector unions back a bit and think that while the private sector labor movement is a good thing in principle, we need more flexible workplaces if manufacturing is going to survive.Some things unite them: infrastructure, for example. Large government expenditures (usually referred to as “investments”) in infrastructure strike the Bitter Clingers as good job creation programs in themselves, especially as long as Davis-Bacon requirements boost wages toward union levels. And the Ataris believe that gee-whiz, innovative infrastructure (enter the high speed rail lobby) is part of building the World of Tomorrow as they see it. Big government is another point of union. The BBC camp needs a big government to employ the public sector workers, subsidize and protect manufacturing, regulate finance and spend a lot of money on infrastructure. The Atari camp needs a ‘smart’ and powerful government both to lead the reconstruction and modernization that Atari Democrats want society to pass through and to create the incentives and markets that ‘smart’ manufacturing and ‘smart’ energy generation somehow always manage to require.The Republican debate around these issues is less focused because many Republicans think about contemporary political economy in terms of abstractions and norms rather than in terms of historical eras and the social organization of the economy. Social conservatives, for example, diagnose many of our economic ills as having spiritual roots. We have turned away from the virtues and beliefs that made us great (and earned us the blessing and protection of Providence) to chase vain and foolish shadows that will undermine both our liberty and our prosperity.Libertarians would agree that we have forsaken eternally valid principles, but look more to the tradition of free market, small government thought. We have abandoned the original principles of our free constitution and the economic and social pain we feel today is the direct result.This debate needs to get smarter. Republicans need to incorporate a better sense of historical development into analyses that otherwise risk becoming ahistorical and platitudinous — however much reality and good moral sense they may reflect. Democrats need to step back from an equally ahistorical tendency to assume that the blue social model is the end of history (that is to say, a social system than which no better can be built) and move past blind, reactionary defense or even modest tweaking.In the next few essays on the passing of blue, I’ll take a deeper look at the prospects for jobs in a postindustrial America. The outlook is both better and worse than most conventional wisdom now holds, and the solutions will require both parties to take a fresh look at some stale dogmas.[Image courtesy Shutterstock]