Since 1941, the US population has more than doubled (133 million to over 317 million). But the number of Americans employed in manufacturing is now the same as it was then: about 12 million. That number increased, roughly in proportion to the population increase, thru the mid seventies, peaking at just under 20 million in 1979. Then the long descent began. In the decade ending in 2010, about 5.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost via the ongoing de-industrialization of America. Since 2001, over 42 thousand American factories have been shut down [Snyder][Global]. And the factories closed were not producing buggy whips; e.g., computer manufacturing employment in the US was lower in 2010 than it was in 1975! It appears that this process will be halted only to the extent that compensation for America workers is further reduced.
In addition to factory work, US corporations are outsourcing
research and design to other countries, mainly in Asia--again to
cut payroll costs. IBM, Intel, GE, and other US companies have
opened R&D facilities in China, thus exporting more high level
There are recent instances of new factory startups in the US. Some by foreign companies, and others by US Corporations, such as Motorola and GE. These are highly automated plants, employing relatively few workers, usually using many foreign-made components. Perhaps most significant is that the employees get minimal benefits and low wages [ Weissmann] .
The federal government is negotiating a new trade treaty involving a dozen nations, The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) [ Hightower] . In addition to matters directly concerning international trade, it will prohibit many kinds of laws designed to protect domestic jobs, the environment and human health. It is being put on a fast track for quick Senate approval, with no amendments. Negotiations took place in secret with corporations, but not the public, at the table. Ratification of the TPP will lead, among other ill effects, to even further hardship for American workers.
Quite apart from material issues, such as money and job
security, people who work diligently at essential, but unglamorous,
routine jobs, such as janitors, or sanitation workers are not given
the respect they generally received in the past [Stephan].
The dominant philosophy
The socio-economic system in operation today in the US is
generally called capitalism, or free enterprise, and the political
system is claimed to be a democracy. But, if we forget the labels,
and just look at how the system actually works, and the direction
in which it is headed, we see an ugly picture.
According to conventional thinking, the major motivating force for people is the desire for unlimited income and wealth. This is supposed to inspire people to deepen our understanding of nature, to develop new techniques for harnessing nature, to create great works of art, to develop socially useful organizations, to organize enterprises to produce and market useful products and services. While there are, doubtless, cases where greed has had benign effects, these are not predominant. More commonly, those motivated by greed find ways to pervert all kinds of human activities into material gain for themselves, often at great cost to others. The dismantling of American factories, with the resulting harm to most American, as discussed above, is a good example of the effects of great power in the hands of the greedy.
Another, literally sickening, example is the way a branch of the pharmaceutical industry extorts, from asthmatic Americans, billions of dollars annually in grossly excessive profits [ Rosenthal] . By exploiting their great political leverage, the industry managed to control the relevant government agencies, and influence legislation so as to ensure that drugs to treat asthma are available to Americans only at prices that are an order of magnitude greater than prices in Europe. An indication of their power is that it is actually illegal for Americans to import prescription medicines from abroad, or to purchase such products from mail-order pharmacies.
Can we do better?
There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that
systematically mistreats the great majority of people. In what kind
of democracy are the interests of the great majority of the
population subordinated to the those of a small wealthy elite? Can
anybody seriously claim that this group, in any reasonable sense,
has truly earned their incredible wealth and incomes? Bear in mind
that perhaps three fourths of the income of the most wealthy people
comes from capital, usually inherited, and that much of the
salaried income of those people is in the form of the huge amounts
paid to top corporate executives [Domhoff].
Libertarians, who I generally agree with on the crucial issues
of civil liberties and militarism, argue that the kinds of problems
discussed above are due to too much government interference. While
I agree that the government today is indeed a major part of the
problem, I believe that this is not inherent in government per se,
but rather a characteristic of the kinds of undemocratic
governments that we have had for a long time.
The libertarian version of capitalism, with no government role
in the economy, is unstable, self-contradictory. Without government
interventions, the conditions for a truly free market capitalism
can't exist [Unger-Reg]. I.e., cartels and monopolies would form
to destroy the free market if we didn't have the government
oversight--that is anathema to libertarians. This important
function, implemented by anti-trust laws, has been deliberately
neglected for many years as one of the consequences of the
domination of government by wealthy corporate interests.
Furthermore, the free market does not protect society against
polluters, or consumers from products with non-obvious, but
serious, defects. Civil law suits, the libertarian answer to
this [Rothbard], while useful in many cases, is often not
an adequate defense.
While there are particular situations in which competition is very useful in promoting efficiency, it is a poor basis for governing most human relationships. E.g., the current trend to keep all kinds of technical information secret for commercial reasons is highly counterproductive. Cooperation is far superior. Traditional examples include barn raising and volunteer firefighting departments. Cooperation involving modern technology includes engineering society standards committees, and free or open-source software [ Stallman ][ Wikipedia-Open ].
Rather than privatizing more and more governmental functions
such as schooling, prisons, water supplies, and highways, we should
be going the other way and increasing the number of services
provided by local, state, and national governments. A potentially
valuable alternative is the worker co-op [UngerCo-ops]. These should be encouraged via
suitable legislation and tax rates. Same for co-op banks. Publicly
run transit systems, electric power utilities, research and
development laboratories, and even banking (as in North Dakota),
should be encouraged. Education at all levels, including
universities, should be publicly funded to enable everybody to be
educated to the extent of their wishes and capabilities (as in the
Nordic countries). A single-payer health insurance program, or a
national health program, as in Great Britain, should replace the
incredibly wasteful non-system that we have. A good case can be
made for nationalizing the predatory pharmaceutical industry. Labor
unions should be encouraged, with attention paid to keeping them
democratically controlled by their members. Anti-trust laws should
be strictly enforced to break up monster corporations.
Manufacturing in the US should be revived using such means as
appropriate tariff regulations [Unger-Jobs]. Steeply graded income taxes,
inheritance taxes, wealth taxes, and transaction taxes should be
used to reduce the obscene level of inequality that currently
prevails. Commercial secrecy should be discouraged.