Labor Day: Technology, Trade and Labor


Thanks to the BackStory podcast for showcasing this WPA artwork.

Yet the campaign had completely failed to do what a political campaign is supposed to do – bring the nation to full awareness and earnest discussion of its most crucial issues and lead to a verdict that would put those issues on the way toward settlement.  There had been nothing even resembling an attempt by reasonable men to analyze a baffling problem and see what could be done about it.

The Coming Fury, Bruce Catton (1961)

Catton’s words about the run up to Lincoln’s election in 1860 are similar to the current political climate 156 years later.  There is not intelligent debate about labor in America.  Major questions exist:

  • Should the US have labor goals?
  • What should those goals be?
  • How should we pursue them?
  • Who is responsible?

Six million jobs lost – more than the population of all but 12 states.

Working in international industrial technology presents many unique viewpoints on this issue.  Beth Macy’s much lauded book, Factory Man, details how the furniture industry developed and has shifted its employment base to Asia in the past thirty years driven by low wages and globalization. Her story focuses on the state of Virginia, home to many of the nearly 700,000 furniture jobs that were lost.

Employment is driven by industry.  Low wages drive industry.  Wage rates are driven by many factors, including currency policies and subsidies.  The factors that drive a city or state’s ability to impact employment are driven by policy outside their control.  Seven million manufacturing jobs have left the US since 1995.  Those jobs represent more than the population of all but the largest dozen states.

The US had a crisis of perception as the frontier closed.  Our American perception about the value of a hard work ethic and the rewards for labor is going through a similar shift.  The data is there.  These jobs don’t come back.  Personnel don’t simply retrain.  Any drive across country encounters the empty production sites and hollowed out towns.

This is a complex problem that the country’s best and brightest are not discussing.  Noted economist Dani Rodrik describes the impact of globalization of graphically in his ‘Trilemma.’  The triangle lays out; (1) hyper-globalization, (2) democratic politics and (3) national sovereignty – Rodrik outlines that a nation can, “Pick two.”  Right now as a nation we are not picking – we are blindly following history, rather than having the discourse we are capable of.


Made by Dani Rodrik

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