American Manufacturing Doesn’t Have to Die

In a time when no one agrees on anything, some vague consensus can be found around the idea that more American manufacturing would be good. Rarely does someone say publicly, “Actually, I think there should be less American manufacturing.” (Although it happens.)

Politicians, particularly our current president, love to talk about American manufacturing. Donald Trump tried to make the deal he struck to save factory jobs at the Carrier HVAC plant in Indiana a synecdoche for his professed concern over the welfare of the American worker. The deal didn’t stop jobs from moving to Mexico, and when a union leader complained that the arrangement hadn’t improved the lives of the employees as much as it had garnered positive press for the new president, the commander in chief bashed him on Twitter. Between the election and January of this year, the president made 31 claims of adding or saving jobs by intervening with companies; ProPublica found that 90 percent of those jobs were not saved or never materialized. But while the scale of these claims was questionable and the results were missing and the actual effect was actively pretty bad, nearly everyone was able to agree that, in a vacuum, saving those jobs would be a nice thing. More American manufacturing: good.

And yet, there is less. Twelve-and-a-half million Americans worked in manufacturing in 2017, down from 14.1 million 11 years earlier. There’s been some growth since the sector dipped to its lowest point in 2010, as a result of the Great Recession, but American businesses are rarely moved by the common public sentiment to make the change and bring their supply chains (and all the jobs they represent) to the US.

As is often the case when there’s agreement that something should change in the United States and still it doesn’t, the answer to the obvious question — who wants to keep the status quo? — is “business.” Or, more and more of late, “capitalism.” If a decision doesn’t cut costs, it’s understood to be bad for business, in violation of the indomitable will of capitalism. And if a decision were to increase costs, well, who would dream of making a decision like that? Not a business person. Basing a supply chain in the US is more expensive than moving it — or, more likely, much more expensive than moving it back from — abroad, thanks to our rules and regulations and unions and minimum wage and child labor laws. Thus, we conclude, it’s impossible to change.

There’s an undercurrent of futility to conversations about American business, a presumption of inevitability to the often-devastating effects of capitalism in its current stage (you know, late). It makes the topic exhausting. You might want to want to read a story about American manufacturing; you might say, “Hmm, yes, American manufacturing, very important” and nod if asked about it in a social setting, but the reality of it — how cotton is grown and yarn is made and fabric is dyed and finished, how factory workers do their jobs to maximize efficiency and how plants and mills adapt to innovation and how companies are structured to make the margins possible — is complex and, frankly, boring.

So you might see a story like this and click it but realize you also need to get started on making dinner or finish those other tabs you have open, and also there are a lot of other really important concerns in the world, and how about that stuff, huh? And anyway, good luck with that American manufacturing thing, you’re really rooting for them, you’ll definitely try to read it later, but you know what they say: Business is business. Business, like the heart, wants what it wants.

Bayard Winthrop, CEO of American Giant, wants you to know that it is not that simple.

Read more at Racked.