People who disdain factories should visit one once in awhile

April 5, 2010
I don't usually use a blog post to take issue with something written in a book, but this is going to be the exception. Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed, by Gregg Easterbrook, is, according to the author, a guide to globalization. That may be true ...

I don't usually use a blog post to take issue with something written in a book, but this is going to be the exception. Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed, by Gregg Easterbrook, is, according to the author, a guide to globalization. That may be true if your idea of globalization includes an America devoid of factories.

One really gets the impression that Mr. Easterbrook has never actually seen the inside of a production facility. At that is my conclusion after reading that, "Service-sector employment moves men and women out of dangerous, debilitating jobs in factories and mines or on farms....into safe, if stressful, work in office environments."

Dangerous, debilitating jobs in factories?

Two things here. First, I'll bet I could make a few phone calls and quickly find a dozen people working in factories who would be surprised to hear that they had jobs considered dangerous and debilitating. The picture painted in Sonic Boom is of a turn-of-the-19th-century Carnegie Steel plant. Apparently Mr. Easterbrook thinks things haven't changed much since then. Second, this kind of nonsense contributes to the environment in which it is hard to convince kids that they can have a fulfilling career working in manufacturing.

Mr. Easterbrook wasn't finished with manufacturing, however. You'll also find this plum is his book: "For example, in 2006, General Motors invested $118 million in its White Marsh, Maryland, transmission plant, retooling to build fuel-efficient transmissions. So far, so good. But the investment added only about eighty five jobs to the facility, at $1.4 million per job. With capital costs like those, manufacturing simply won't create enough jobs to fill future needs."

Where to begin. I suppose that GM plant was retooled entirely by a robotic workforce, since, by Mr. Easterbrook's account, no human was employed in building the facility. Ditto, apparently, for the entire supply chain that supports those fuel-efficient transmissions. But the notion of a supply chain seems to be foreign to Mr. Easterbrook's world.

In fact, he has little good to say about manufacturers unless they happen to be Chinese manufacturers setting up facilities in the U.S. He devotes a section to Haier, a Chinese white good maker that set up shop in South Carolina. All we know from Easterbrook about its U.S. competitor Whirlpool is that it "closed factories in Iowa and Indiana" because of international competition. Left unexplained is why a Chinese company can come to the U.S. and profitably operate a factory when a domestic U.S. supplier can't. Nor is it explained why, despite the fact that "service sector jobs cost much less to create than manufacturing sector employment," a foreign manufacturer would find it lucrative to create manufacturing jobs here instead of, say, yet another mortgage brokerage.

(If you want a different perspective on Whirlpool's travails with international competition, read Ideo CEO Tim Brown's book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation )

I'll give Mr. Easterbrook credit for right-thinking in one area: "There is a clear economic benefit to higher education," he writes. "Households headed by those with bachelor's degrees had four times the net worth of households headed by those with only high school diplomas, and their net worth was increasing at a much faster rate." A promising situation, I guess, except for those having bachelor's degrees and working in factories where their "dangerous, debilitating" jobs condemn them to an early demise.

One wonders where a world view like Mr. Easterbrook's comes from. But we find a clue on the book jacket, where we learn Mr. Easterbrook resides near Washington, D.C. This, I believe, explains a lot. Washington, D.C. is like the rest of the U.S. in the same way Disneyland is like the rest of California.

Amazon link for Sonic Boom:

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