Quirks of History?

23 Aug

America has many images of itself that inform the national character, that define how we see ourselves. Two of the most enduring involve industry and farming: our Great Plains are the Breadbasket of the World, and America’s Manufacturing Might is unrivaled.

These ideas have become such a part of the national character, that we are willing to spend an incredible amount of money to protect that image even as it increasingly becomes untrue. The American Farmer feeds the world. The Middle Class, under assault from all sides, was created through the hard labor of American factory workers. This is who we are.

But what if those two circumstances were a quirk of recent history, and not the enduring legacy of our nation?

Plains & Cars

The Economist has run two unrelated stories recently about farming and Blue Collar America that point to these phenomena. Let’s first examine the American farmer.

When settlers first began to push west through the Louisiana Purchase, they skipped the future Iowas, Nebraskas and Dakotas because they were the Great American Desert. Dry, dusty and unfit for farming, settlers were willing to cross the Rockies by foot and wagon to make it to far lusher Oregon and California. Only in the 1910’s-20’s, with the technology finally available to drain the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation, was the area suitable for farming. But even so, some rainfall was still required, or you ended up with the drought-caused Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.

However, it turns out that the Dust Bowl is the historic norm, not the outlier. Recent research of the Canadian Great Plains show that the 20th century has been unusually wet, a blip on the radar of climatologically history. Even without the effects of climate change, the Great Plains should be getting drier in the future. They already are in Canada, where rainfall is off 40%. With the Ogallala scheduled to be dry in the next several decades, is the large industrial farm of the Great Plains a coincidence?

The second quirk is American manufacturing. While the US has had a manufacturing tradition since the Industrial Revolution, our global dominance in manufacturing, and the stable middle class that went with it, may be an accident of history. Our primacy peaked in the 1950’s and 60’s, in the boom that followed the Second World War. The Economist points out that in the mid-1950’s, Detroit had the highest median income and highest rate of home ownership of any American city. Now, of course, Detroit has lost half its population, and leads many other categories, all in the negative.

Richard Florida, at his Creative Class blog, shows how net private job growth in the US in the last decade is 0. However, within that number, each industry has faired differently. Manufacturing is off 3.7% for the decade, while the auto industry is down 6.7%. Other creative industries, like healthcare, consulting and education, have grown. Of course, this is just a continuation of wage stagnation in blue collar industries since Jimmy Carter, and movement of the global industrial base to Mexico, Korea, China, Japan and Europe.

In this country we bemoan the loss of manufacturing like it is our country’s birthright, or historical destiny. In truth, however, the union-created manufacturing-based middle class was an unsustainable flash in the pan, not a long term move. Here is the central point: US manufacturing was king when it was the only industrial power globally. The destruction of Germany and Japan left the US the only game in town. The Korean War decimated that country shortly thereafter. GM, Ford, Bethlehem Steel and others could afford to be as inefficient, pension-generous, and mismanaged as they wanted to be when they had no competition. But our primacy truly lasted for two decades, and we’ve been spending the last 40 years wondering where it went, and trying to get it back.

What does this all mean? America may have a short history, but we still manage to misunderstand it, or over-extrapolate it. Two of the major production sectors that define our national identity are unsustainable at best, or an accident at worst. The sooner we recognize that the sooner we can 1) create a sustainable identity for ourselves, and 2) formulate public policy to support it. The current system of bailouts and subsidies to artificially sustain an anachronistic vision isn’t working.

4 Responses to “Quirks of History?”

  1. Colin Eager August 24, 2009 at 2:59 pm #


    I think you understate the American industrial tradition. The 50s and 60s may have been its height, but we were a real industrial power for much longer than that. That’s more than a quirk, I think.

  2. Brian Castner August 24, 2009 at 7:48 pm #

    How about this then: the blue collar middle class created in the 50’s and 60’s is the transient phenomenon, not the manufacturing itself. When GM made such a huge percentage of the world’s cars (because Germany was still rebuilding, and Japan wasn’t a leader yet), it could afford to pay wages that are unsustainable now. In the future, white collar means middle class, and blue collar means only working class. Oh wait: the future is now.

  3. Colin Eager August 25, 2009 at 9:52 am #

    I think that’s accurate. But there’s a key piece of the puzzle missing, isn’t there? You account for the unskilled working class (the old blue collar folks) and the skilled middle class (white collar) but that’s not the entire spectrum, right? There’s also an underclass, and the small minority or the wealthy, and they’re both impacted, too. When the value of blue collar work is defined downward, the underclass gets squeezed (with bad results for the rest of us) and the wealthy benefit. What you’re talking about is a system where average people are told that their wages must stagnate or decrease so that the rich can get richer. I don’t know how sustainable that is.

  4. Brian Castner August 25, 2009 at 10:51 pm #

    I’m talking about a system where in a country of 300 million, and 150 million jobs, we can’t afford to have 75 million unskilled jobs. We need 30 million (to make up a number) laborers, maids, and burger flippers. The 45 million in the middle need more education, more skills, and more expertise, to do different kinds of things. They can’t get a job at GM from their uncle, with no outside skills, and make $70K a year and be middle class anymore. Because that middle class job has moved to another country. But there are things that need to be done here (nursing is the new GM), so folks need to get educated. Its a culture change, as well as an economic change.

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