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Worried About the Cleanliness of American Households?

Here’s a letter to a long-time correspondent, Nolan McKinney:

Mr. McKinney:

Unhappy with my linking favorably today to Bruce Yandle’s explanation that American manufacturing is thriving, you write that I and Prof. Yandle “don’t get it.” We “ignore the elephant in the room which is the huge drop off of manufacturing jobs.” You conclude: “With falling amounts of labor in our factories our manufacturing is doomed to extinction.”

With respect, you’re mistaken. Forget that the absolute number of Americans employed in manufacturing started falling during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, while the percentage of workers employed in manufacturing started falling in the 1940s. Yet America’s manufacturing output and industrial capacity have ever since pretty steadily risen, and continue to rise. Today, each is near an all-time high.

Instead, let me ask if you worry that the cleanliness of American households is doomed to extinction. I ask because the number of hours that Americans today devote to housework is down by about 40 percent from its level in the late 1960s. Do you believe that Americans’ homes are today dirtier than they were when Richard Nixon began working in the Oval Office – or that they are doomed to become unprecedentedly filthy? By the logic of your argument, you must suffer such worry, because, just as fewer and fewer hours of labor are devoted to manufacturing, fewer and fewer hours of labor are devoted to housework.

I’ll bet, however, that you don’t worry about the cleanliness of American households. You understand that increasing automation and other labor-saving developments enable fewer hours of housework to produce greater amounts of cleanliness. What is true for housework is true for manufacturing.

In good conscience I counsel you to calm your fears.

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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