So Long, Dream Babies

Posted by Pete Nofel on Aug 16th, 2010.

The saying used to be that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” That meant that somewhere around the globe the sun was shining on one of Great Britain’s colonies. The sun set on the British Empire about the time it became the United Kingdom.

England used to be the world leader in manufacturing, beginning in the 1850s, thanks largely to the industrial revolution. It took the championship away from China due to Britain’s ability to automate production instead of producing goods by hand.

Then, along came that upstart United States in the late 1890s and took the crown away from the Brits. We’ve held it ever since. But, that’s coming to an end. According to a prediction by IHS Global Insight, a US-based economics consulting company, as reported by the Financial Times, the sun is going to set on US manufacturing leadership by 2011. Big surprise, huh?

For years, economist wonks have been prophesying the coming age of the service economy; we’re not going to be dirtying our hands anymore by making stuff, we’ll all get rich by the metaphysical equivalent of selling each other hamburgers or taking in each other’s laundry. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine how well that’s worked out so far – I’ll just be keeping my fingers crossed that I find a paying gig before I run out of unemployment benefits and become a 99er*.

In 2009, the US created 19.9 percent of world manufacturing output, compared with 18.6 per cent for China, according to HIS as reported in the Financial times. We won’t maintain that lead. The reason is simple enough, according to the Times report, the US can’t compete with a country that has four times its population and pays a tenth of US wages.

Underlying this, too, to a certain extent is the idea that taking a job making stuff – what used to be called “blue-collar work” – is beneath us. We should all go to college and study obscure 12th Century French Poets and get fulfilling green jobs tending Delta Smelt** at high altitudes.

My mother’s relatives were from a small town in Kansas. I remember an aunt’s visit to Cleveland in the 1950s when it was the 11th largest city in the US. Driving over the Detroit-Superior bridge back then, across the city’s industrial heart, she saw the chimney’s from the steel mills pumping out smoke and she felt compelled to comment.

“That’s prosperity coming out of those smokestacks,” she said.

Today the mills are closed, the chimneys idle, the sky is clear, and the city ranked 33rd largest in the 2000 census. Delaying the Chinese leadership in manufacturing are the thousands of machine shops across the US. We’ve been able to stay ahead of the offshore manufacturers due to our better accuracy, tighter tolerances, and quality machines, but don’t expect that to last much longer.

As a child of the baby boom, I looked with bright eyes toward America’s future, never expecting to see the decline of the US during my lifetime. As author Jerry Pournelle said, “when I was a teen I expected to see America put the first man on the moon. I never expected to live to see the last one.”

*a 99er is someone unemployed who was dropped from the unemployment benefits roll because they used up all of their allotment.

** The Delta Smelt is a two-inch endangered fish that the government is using as an excuse to deny water to central California orchards and farms.

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