Monday, January 16, 2012

The Past, Present, and Future of Greenville Manufacturing

I love it when NPR does a story on my hometown. Just this week Planet Money did a two part series on the history of American manufacturing through the lens of Greenville, SC. Here's my version of the story:

The Past

With several forces coming together at the right time, the early days of the Industrial Revolution brought about radical economic change. Work moved from the home to factories in cities, greatly improving human life, wealth, and morality. Which meant the late 1800's and early 1900's saw huge economic growth. These increases in production, and in turn increasing wages, didn't require very much expertise (assembly lines run themselves) and could often be created by a lone genius inventor.

The Present

Then we had The Great Stagnation. The Industrial Revolution picked up all the low-hanging fruit of innovation. Printing press, cheap western land, fossil fuel powered machines, penicillin, clean water, cars, planes, basic worker education, etc. all made life better quickly and relatively easily. Computers, cancer research, alternative forms of energy, college education for all, etc are all slow going and complicated to benefit from. Also, much of the innovation of machinery and globalization of trade has replaced the low skill industrial workers of the past and it's still happening (just check this old and new video of automobile manufacturing).

The Future

If you read the full Planet Money story in the Atlantic the future looks grim. Workers are suffering in the name of profit. The poor try, but can never succeed. The reality is a little more optimistic. Every time a human is replaced by a machine (or even a cheaper human) customers benefit. And since all workers are also customers, even the replaced workers' lives can improve. The unemployed of today probably have better living standards than the employed of the 1910's because of increases in productivity. That's why I support some kinds of social safety nets (especially the kind that retrains replaced workers). I also suggest that when choosing a career be sure you can't be replaced by a machine in your lifetime (hint: don't go into the toy assembling business).

The Distant Future

Though if I did have a worry about how technology impacts society, it would be about fertility. As technology improves, jobs become more complicated. That's why the return on education is actually greater than it used to be, even non-economically speaking (especially if you weren't "supposed to go"). This increase in complexity requires an increase in education. Which is usually fine because increases in education result in increases in pay that exceed the cost of that education. But what I'm specially worried that if jobs become so complicated that they require decades of education, they could delay plans for family past the point of our most fertile years. What if we have to learn so much we can't have babies anymore, increasing the future underpopulation bust? My guess is creating a family while still in school will become a more common trend.


  1. Education - yes..... College - no.... Colleges & Universities are not preparing students for the type of jobs that are needed.

    Sir Ken Robinson:

    how you get educated to perform a job in my opinion can be done more effectively outside of the current university system. There are exceptions of course. especially when the degree is very specified for a specific task which are not the majority of college degrees.

  2. Agreed. But there are still a lot of reasons to go to college:


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.