How it’s Made
By Patrick F. Cannon
I’m fascinated by a program on the Science Channel called “How it’s Made.” Each program includes three or four products and shows their production process from raw materials to finished product.
I now know how breakfast cereal is made, along with numerous other food products. We’ve all probably seen brief scenes showing car assembly on the evening news, but I’ve seen the complete process for both regular passenger cars and exotics that can exceed 200 miles per hour. Have you wondered how those golf balls you regularly hit into the water come to be on your tee? Or how crayons are made? Or circuit boards? Or cricket bats?
It’s fascinating stuff. It’s also instructive, because what you’re actually watching most of the time is the miracle of computer controlled machine tools that are efficiently doing the work that was once done by people. There are still men and women on the automobile assembly line to be sure, but in greatly reduced numbers. So-called robots are now doing most of the welding, stamping and boring. And they don’t belong to unions.
These are the jobs that once went to high school graduates who didn’t go on the college, either because they couldn’t or didn’t want to. Starting after World War II, a willing worker could get a good job at the steel mill, the auto plant, the appliance manufacturer – indeed, any number of companies that were satisfying a pent up demand stifled by depression and war. Now, as some politicians are fond of reminding us, many of these jobs have gone to foreign shores, because enlightened (to me) trade policies have leveled the labor playing field, with the result that the worldwide standard of living has steadily risen.
It is well to remember that the United States is still a manufacturing power. While China, with four times the population, leads the world in total manufacturing value, the per capita value of those goods was $1,856 in a recent year, as compared to the United States’ $6,280. Keep in mind also that, even though the brand names might sometimes be foreign, most of the automobiles sold in this country are made here.
The American worker is also highly productive. Only Switzerland, Luxembourg and Norway have more productive workers, and they are obviously very small economies. What this means, and “How it’s Made” confirms it, is that fewer workers can get the same work done. And these workers are more likely to be people who know how to operate computers and complicated machinery. It isn’t enough, now, to just have a high school diploma.
Despite what politicians tell you to the contrary, the decline in the numbers of high paying manufacturing jobs was and is unavoidable. For many years, we have been in a transition to an information-based economy, where education is king. The most recent figures show an unemployment rate for college graduates of 2.8 percent; for high school graduates it’s 5.4 percent. Average weekly income is $1,137 and $678 respectively.
In January, the number of job openings in this country rose above 5 million for the first time. That strongly suggests that employers are finding it difficult to find qualified applicants for some jobs. Only education tailored to the new realities can reduce that number. Finally, we should recognize that it’s too late for some people. If they’re willing to work at a lower paying job, we should continue the earned-income tax credits and other programs that permit them to maintain a decent standard of living, while giving their children the kind of education they’ll need in an inevitably changing economy.
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon
4 thoughts on “How it’s Made”
Change is constant. Civilizations and economies will continue to evolve, and all best inventions of the time (mimeograph machines, telegraphs, typewriters, Polaroid film, vinyl records) will eventually become obsolete. People who understand this and embrace it will thrive, but those who stubbornly refuse to change will not do well. We should help people learn the new things hey need to learn, but they have to WANT to learn.
In my career, I went from a manual typewriter to an electric to a selectric to a word processor to a computer, all in 40 years.
Milton Friedman visited China in I think the 1960s and was shown a massive works project where thousands of laborers were toiling away with shovels. The official escorting him proudly pointed out how in this way his country was able to achieve full employment. “Well if that’s the case,” Friedman replied, “instead of shovels, why don’t you give them spoons?”
People don’t understand the concept of productivity, or how efficiencies in, say, car production reduce costs to consumers, which allows them more income to buy things in other markets. Improving marketable skills through education is the key here.
Ironically, one of the most inefficient fields of endeavor is the education system itself. It’s bureaucratic, unfocused, expensive and unproductive. Graduates of high school have few skills and minimal knowledge; college grads usually need to be retrained in the fields of their choosing. Universities still follow a model established in 19th century Germany. Just imagine how prosperous this country might be if families weren’t burdened with tuition costs now averaging more than $160,000 per student (in state tuition at state schools is about half that) for a four-year degree.
As Frank Zappa putit, if you want to get laid go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.
Can’t remember all the details, but read a piece a few years ago that compared relative costs of stuff 50 years ago and now. One example was television sets for which comparative cost now would be something like $5,000 for a set then that did little but cause frustration. Now, you can get a smart TV with a 50 inch screen for $500 or less. Many other examples could be cited, but even folks with low incomes have better stuff now than rich people did then.