The Manufacturing Myth

Why is a manufacturing job superior to a job in any other sector?

Hardly a month goes by without me hearing people bemoan the decline of American manufacturing. I find their laments hard to understand, as do other economists.

Why is a manufacturing job superior to a job in any other sector?

It’s true that American manufacturing employment has fallen steadily since the 1970s. But in the meantime, real output by the American manufacturing sector has risen. That’s right – manufacturing has grown by leaps and bounds even while jobs in manufacturing have vanished:

The reason is simple: American manufacturing workers have become more productive.

One reason for the huge increase in productivity is that Americans don’t make the same things they used to make. Cheap consumer goods like toys and socks are mostly manufactured overseas, often in China. These are low-value, often labor-intensive products that come with low wages. Making them is not the way to higher incomes for Americans.

Instead of making toys and socks, many Americans started working in the service sector. Indeed, if they hadn’t found jobs in services, unemployment would have become a much bigger problem. But the service sector grew, especially in education and health:

In fact, new jobs in education and health more than made up for the loss of jobs in manufacturing. After the peak in manufacturing employment in 1979, education and health added more than 13.5 million jobs. Over the same time period, manufacturing lost 7.5 million jobs, for a net gain of more than 6 million. And that wasn’t counting any other service industries.

Clearly, the quantity of jobs is not the issue when looking at the importance of manufacturing employment to the economy. But what about quality – is there some way in which manufacturing jobs are better than service jobs?

There are high- and low-paying jobs in both sectors. Some people may be nostalgic for high-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs with long-term security and big pensions. But such jobs still exist in an occupation called teaching. (Yes, teaching requires a bit more education, but so does almost any job these days.) In general, the quality of a job is much more affected by conditions specific to its workers and industry than by being in the manufacturing or service sector.

Today, Americans produce some goods and services and import others. If we produced the ones we imported, we’d almost certainly 1) pay higher prices for them and 2) have lower wages. As a result, news of manufacturing jobs returning to the United States is not always positive. In some cases, wages have simply dropped far enough here – or risen enough elsewhere – that producing abroad is no longer a better deal.

I’ve written elsewhere about why wages in the United States haven’t risen despite the gains in Americans’ productivity. But I still shake my head when I read passages like this, from Beth Macy’s forthcoming book, “Factory Man,” about the survival of an American furniture maker:

“What he was telling me was that, if I was going to Walmart to buy a T-shirt for ten dollars, that would be better than having people in Martinsville and Galax and Hudson making $15 an hour and supporting the local restaurants, insurance companies and banks.”

It was the same sophistry preached by Walmart founder Sam Walton, who claimed he could raise the standard of living by lowering costs of retail goods.

This was not sophistry; it was basic economics. You could pick any product we imported and apply the same logic – would it always be better to produce it domestically and pay more for it? Using this logic, you could argue for eliminating all imports of goods the United States was capable of producing itself, regardless of the cost such production would imply. Just imagine how your standard of living would change if you could only purchase American versions of every imported product. It would be like living in the Soviet bloc, which was not exactly known for the quality of its domestic manufacturing.

In the future, I hope that we will evaluate jobs by their compensation and stability rather than the sector to which they happen to belong. Then we can focus on the real reasons for the stagnation of American wages.

For more on this topic, you might like to read these articles by Robert Reich and Richard Florida.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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