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viewpoint

No man no manufacture

| Tuesday, December 6, 2016

We’ve heard a lot in the past months of election coverage about working-class jobs. Candidates from both sides of the aisle have courted the blue-collar vote by promising to create or return the 4.5 million manufacturing jobs that have left the United States since 1994, with Democrats and Republicans alike running against free trade for the first time I can remember. The result? A vicious and decisive battle for the electoral votes of the Rust Belt.

Now that the dust has settled for a moment, I will be interested to see whether the new president can deliver on the promised working-class Renaissance. Sure, rolling back regulations (along with what appears to be a obsequious campaign of tax incentives) might allow companies to lower production costs enough to bring manufacturing back, if you’re okay with working 100-hour weeks at a plant with suicide nets on the roof and regular instances of local rivers catching fire. And maybe a prolonged tariff war with China might force Apple and so forth to make their products stateside, assuming millennials are willing to fork over an extra 14 percent for a domestic iPhone. Yet it would be a serious mistake to assume that manufacturing production necessarily translates to manufacturing jobs.

In the unlikely event that steel comes back to Pittsburgh and cars to Dearborn and T-shirts to Lowell, it won’t be American workers doing the labor; it’ll be machines. We don’t have to imagine what this future will look like; it’s already happening. “Reshoring” companies are fleeing higher wages in the oft-vilified China and moving their factories to America — and staffing them with robots. While American manufacturing output has risen over 20 percent since the recession ended in 2009, manufacturing jobs have only gone up about 5 percent.

In fact, the verb “manufacture” itself has become outdated. The word comes from the Latin “manu factum,” or “made by hand,” which is no longer the case at this point in history. Perhaps an alternative (“mechafacturing,” or “made by contrivance”?) is needed.

And if you think the future of manufacturing looks bleak, you should be terrified for the fate of transportation jobs. Self-driving vehicles are already capable of operating near or even beyond human capabilities. Computer programs don’t need truck stops or air conditioning, and they don’t get road rage. Consider the shock to the nation’s 2.8 million-worker trucking sector when automated transport goes mainstream. Long-haul truckers and delivery drivers won’t be the only ones affected; New York City alone is home to over 56,000 cabbies whose knowledge of the city is rapidly being rendered obsolete by GPS technology. Airline pilots might last a little longer, given the complexities of trying to navigate through a storm cell. As algorithms improve, however, consumers will demand the superior efficiency and safety of robotic transport.

Predictably, these advances in technology have created reactionaries opposed to this progress. And a politician insistent on drawing support from the loom-smashers might shortsightedly decide the best way to maintain these voters is to suppress the innovations that cause their obsolescence. Sure, the slowdown will likely cost more economic productivity than it generates, and the eventual elimination of manual production is all but inevitable as automated costs continue to fall. But in the meantime, it appears it’s perfectly possible to tip elections by feeding the rust belt fantasy.

Rather than yearn for a bygone era falsely made rosy by nostalgia (we’ve had more than our fill of that recently, thank you) Americans facing systemic job loss would do better to reach down, take a firm hold upon their bootstraps, and pull upwards. While the disruptive influence of automation means that work at “The Plant” has been consigned to the twentieth century and Bruce Springsteen songs, the Silicon Revolution has opened thousands of new opportunities for those willing to ride the wave of innovation. Programming is the new welding — a fundamental skill by which the premium products of the age are created. There’s even still a place for unskilled labor in America; while manufacturing is falling, retail is on the rise. Maybe “we don’t make anything anymore.” Maybe that’s okay.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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