The American Prospect - December 2011 - (Page A13)
CAN AMERICA MA K E IT?
for a growing number of business leaders, troubled by the erosion of the middle class, promoting domestic production has become a new battle cry. The cry has also been taken up by such centrist Democratic organizations as the Progressive Policy Institute (an offshoot of the old Democratic Leadership Council) and Third Way. With no prompting from their betters, however, the American people are already on board for a more nationalist economic program. In the Mellman-Ayres-McHenry poll, 90 percent of responders supported giving tax breaks to manufacturers that expand production and create jobs in the U.S., to be funded by eliminating the tax breaks companies receive for moving jobs abroad. The Senate’s recent bipartisan vote to impose tariffs on Chinese imports in retaliation for its currency manipulation, and Mitt Romney’s vow to do the same on his first day as president, attest to the growing strength of economic nationalist sentiment. Obama, who’s declined to support such a measure, dismisses it at his peril. At bottom, the decline of American manufacturing has deep systemic roots. The combined forces of technology and globalization have reduced the number of industrial workers in most advanced economies, but nowhere has the decline been so precipitous and profound as in the United States. What made us different is that these two trends coincided with the rise of the most extreme form of shareholder capitalism—elevating the concerns of investors, the primacy of profits and share value, over those of the workers and communities to which the earlier, pre-1980 form of stakeholder capitalism also paid heed. It’s no coincidence that Germany, the only advanced economy to expand and upgrade its manufacturing sector in the age of globalization, is also the primary practitioner of stakeholder capitalism. Corporate boards are composed of equal numbers of labor and management representatives, while an entire sector of banking is devoted to funding small and midsized manufacturing ventures, freeing them from the pressure of capital markets. The resulting quantity and quality of German manufacturing have produced an economy that’s the envy of the world. “Germany is socialistic, it’s green,” says U.S. Steel CEO John Surma, “and it’s kicking our ass by any capitalistic measure.” The United States is not likely to become significantly more socialistic or green anytime soon. But through trade policies and industrial policies that promote domestic manufacturing, we can begin to realign the practices of American business with the urgent needs of the nation and its people.
MINI-MANUFACTURING AND THE CITY
ew York City was once an industrial behemoth. Unlike Detroit or Pittsburgh, New York was too densely settled to support massive factories. In the first half of the 20th century, though, it was home to blue-collar districts devoted to printing, fur, food (meatpacking and the fish market), electrical appliances—and, of course, the Garment District. These onetime workplaces have long since been converted into office space, though a much shrunken Garment District is still there if you go looking for it. But New York is home today to a growing number of millennials working in artisanal crafts and small-scale, do-it-yourself (DIY), open-source manufacturing. Like the locavore movement, they even have their own version of a farmers market, which assembles annually in the Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows, where the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs once attested to America’s manufacturing might. The second annual World Maker Faire, held on a September weekend, featured DIY proponents of all ages and backgrounds. They displayed the jewelry, soap, and clothing they had made but also the more cutting-edge 3-D printing machines and the brightly colored figurines they had produced. Indeed, a tour of the faire suggested that 3-D printing and laser cutting may spearhead a wave of small-scale urban manufacturing. Bre Pettis—a 39-year-old former assistant in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop —is the co-founder of MakerBot Industries, which manufactures open-source robots that make things. In the MakerBot process, 3-D designs are downloaded onto websites like Thingiverse, where design enthusiasts can add to it. They then craft the shapes and design features they prefer into plastic using the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic 3D Printer, which retails for $1,299 and looks somewhat like the guts of a television. MakerBot’s sales, totaling about $8 million, enable the company to employ 51 people. “Instead of ordering things that are made in China that are then put on boats, trains, and buses and sit on shelves on stores,” Pettis said, “you just print on demand—literally, make things on demand.” The things featured on Thingiverse include key chains, pliers, and bowls. Epilog Laser, a leading producer of carbon-dioxide and fiber-laser engraving and cutting systems, was showing off a higher-end, larger-scale product that turns out, among other things, laser-printed glasses, plaques, and swatches of denim. Established in 1988 in Golden, Colorado, where it still operates, Epilog employs 75 people who design and manufacture the copy-machine-size laser equipment, which retails for around $8,000. Can this kind of micro-manufacturing take root in post-industrial cities? Kate Sofis, the executive director of SFMade, a nonprofit that seeks to grow small-scale manufacturing within San Francisco, believes it can. In the current financial climate, she says, “it makes economic sense for these companies to manufacture at this scale. Inside the city limits, companies that are doing well in these higher-cost environments are competing on three things: having some sort of design or customization that makes their products more than a mass-produced Jennifer Mascia is an thing; they tend to be very flexible and very nimop-ed researcher at ble; and they are using human ingenuity in their The New York Times workforce—down to folks doing the selling, baking, and the author of or the construction—as a key competitive advanNever Tell Our Busitage. By definition, these aren’t highly automated ness to Strangers (Random House). jobs. They’re using real people.” —jennifer mascia
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Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of The American Prospect - December 2011
The American Prospect - December 2011