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A Telling Tale of Toil

In this splendid new essay, David Henderson sings the praises of globalization. Do read the whole piece, but this paragraph stood out to me:

At an event I spoke at about fifteen years ago, during the “China shock,” another speaker, financial adviser Ron Muhlenkamp, told an interesting story. He had spoken to an audience of steelworkers in Pennsylvania whose median age, he estimated, was about fifty-five. They, to a man, all wanted to hold off on steel imports until they retired in about five or so years. Then he asked, “Who here wants your son to work in the steel industry?” Not a hand went up. They realized that they had tough jobs and wanted protection of the industry only until they retired. But they wanted their adult children to get cleaner, safer jobs. They didn’t get their way totally; some of their jobs disappeared, but at least their adult children would get nicer jobs, even if the jobs paid somewhat less.

Ron Muhlenkamp’s experience doesn’t surprise me.

My father dropped out of school in the 6th grade, although in his mid-30s he earned his GED. The GED, alas, didn’t change his career path. He worked for most of his adult life in a shipyard, first as a pipe fitter, then toward the end of his working days as a crane operator. At the end of my first, less-than-successful semester of college – the semester before I luckily stumbled into a course on the principles of microeconomics – I mentioned to my parents that I was seriously considering dropping out of college. (I was indeed serious. I went to college to chase women and drink beer. I was wholly unsuccessful in the former endeavor and far too successful in the latter. I cared not a whit about school work, and my grades accurately reflected my indifference.)

Having worked at the shipyard during each of the previous two summers (1975 and 1976), I knew that I could get a job there. My mother and father were aghast at my announcement. I don’t recall my dad’s exact words, but he made crystal clear to me that if I dropped out of college and followed in his career footsteps, I would be throwing away a golden opportunity to get employment of the sort that he always wished he could have gotten but knew was out of his reach.

My father (and mother), in short, would have been deeply disappointed in me had I aspired to work as a laborer in the manufacturing sector.

Please do not think that I hold manufacturing workers in contempt. I do not. Again, my father was one such worker, and I loved him dearly and respected him immensely. But as a matter of indisputable reality, nine-to-five jobs on factory floors are not jobs that most parents want their children to hold. And parents are correct in the sense that the ‘best’ jobs – in terms of pay, fulfillment, and work conditions – are in the service sector, such as my job as a college professor. And such as also are the jobs held by the pundits and tweeters who are today nostalgic for America’s manufacturing past.

Nearly all such manufacturing-obsessed pundits and tweeters who advocate that state power be used to artificially create more manufacturing jobs in the United States (and, as a result, fewer service-sector jobs) want to condemn future generations to what almost no parents want for their children – namely, future careers on factory floors.

I know that none of the “national conservative” and progressive pundits and tweeters who peddle policies to ‘restore’ manufacturing employment understand that, were government to succeed in artificially increasing manufacturing employment in the U.S., manufacturing wages, and wages overall, would be made lower than they are today. These pundits and tweeters unfailingly display their ignorance of basic economics. But I wonder how many of these pundits and tweeters were raised in households in which one or both parents worked on factory floors. I’ll bet not many.

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