October 5, 2023
In a recent episode of my favorite zombie apocalypse show, SyFy’s Z Nation, a character celebrates the restarting of a hydroelectric power station — that had been clogged with dead zombies — by firing off flares and declaring that with the electricity back on, Industry could resume and with it, normal life would return. If only things were that simple! Millions of blue collar manufacturing jobs have been lost in the last 40 years and suddenly important people miss them. Those of us who devoted our lives to making things tried to raise the alarm as poor decision after poor decision flowed out of Washington and Wall Street. I lost confidence in our economic policy makers long ago and have no confidence they will do anything worthwhile with their newly found concern for manufacturing. When I took Econ 101 back at UW-Waukesha in 1970, I was taught that wealth is created when you grow something, raise something, dig something out of the ground, make something, or transport something to market. There was no real value placed on entertainment or intellectual property; and certainly none in pushing paper around or “managing things.” And yet within 10 years of that class, our decision makers set about basing our economy on entertainment, pushing paper, and managing things. This “service economy” was the wave of the future, they assured us. It would free us from the monotony of factory work, like the tractor freed the farmer from hours and hours of backbreaking toil. As long as the GDP continued to grow, everyone would be just fine. Fancy words spoken by people who never once pulled a chip from their designer shoes! Factory work isn’t everyone’s ideal job but it sure beats serving coffee. The satisfaction of making something useful is important to many of us. The opportunity to learn a skill, transform raw materials, and be a part of a team makes life worthwhile. So how exactly are we going to revitalize our manufacturing base so our children and grandchildren have the chance to build real wealth?