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On the Meaning of “Deindustrialization”

Here’s a letter to a new correspondent:

Mr. H__:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You aren’t the only person who thinks me mistaken to argue that America has not deindustrialized. You write: “The argument about US deindustrialisation is not refuted with a showing of a high and rising level of industrial output and industrial capacity. What is of concern is employment. Those arguing the US has deindustrialised refer to the loss of blue collar industrial jobs and not falloff in industrial outputs.”

Despite the fact that union boss James Hoffa asserted not long ago on PBS that “we don’t make things in this country anymore,” perhaps you’re correct that when most people complain about “deindustrialization” they have in mind what’s happening with industrial employment rather than what’s happening with industrial output or capacity. But if so, the term “deindustrialization” is misleading. Just as, for example, the term “deforestation” means a significant reduction in the amount of land filled with forests rather than a reduction in the number of people engaged in planting and maintaining trees, the complaint that ‘the U.S. has deindustrialized’ clearly conveys the impression that America now has much less industry and industrial output than it had in the past – a complaint that is the opposite of the truth.

Further, insofar as the complaints are about a reduction in blue-collar work, I can’t take such complaints seriously. While there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with blue-collar jobs – my father was a shipyard laborer and all three of my siblings are blue-collar workers – most of the individuals who complain about the loss of blue-collar jobs are white-collar intellectuals or politicians (not a few of whom boasting degrees from the Ivy League). I’m quite certain that most of the pundits and pols who lament the loss of blue-collar jobs have little familiarity with such work and, more significantly, would be loathe to quit their current occupations in order to work at construction sites or on factory floors.

I’ll tell you what I’ve told other people: Although my blue-collar father would have retained for me a father’s natural pride in his productive children if I followed in his footsteps and became a pipefitter, he would have thought me mad had I given up my white-collar job for a blue-collar one.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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