As the cost of doing business in China rises, U.S. manufacturing could be on the verge of a renaissance. But that won't necessarily mean a flood of blue-collar jobs.
In the past year, the conversation about U.S. manufacturing has undergone a quiet but remarkable change. Gone is much of the doom and gloom about the death of American factories. Instead, many now seem certain that industry is due for a comeback here at home.
The latest murmurs of good news came last week, when Cook Associates released the results of survey finding that 85% of manufacturing executives expected at least some kinds of factory work to return to the U.S. from overseas. The firm polled roughly 3,000 executives at small and mid-size manufacturers, about two-thirds of whom said their companies were currently manufacturing or outsourcing work abroad.
What could drive the revival? Rising wages in China, to start. Workers there are still cheap -- in the country's southern manufacturing hub, they earn just 75 cents an hour -- but they're not as cheap as they used to be. According to the American Institute for Economic Research, the average hourly wage in China doubled between 2002 and 2008. The country's currency has also risen gradually since 2005, from about 12 cents per yuan up to roughly 15 cents.
Pile on the logistical headaches that come from coordinating operations across the Pacific, as well as high fuel costs that make shipping more expensive, and all this has some business people considering a move back to the states. For some kinds of work, at least. In August, Boston Consulting Group released a report predicting a global realignment in the manufacturing sector. By 2015, the firm believes that many kinds of production will be just as cheap in the U.S. as in China, especially in low volume, heavy goods where labor only makes up a small part of the cost equation. Those include products like car parts, construction equipment, and appliances. Not everything is moving home. Textile mills in South Carolina? Don't hold your breath.
Factories are about to disappear from Shenzen. They'll still be there, churning out iPods, TVs, and pretty much whatever else you can imagine. But they'll cater more to China's domestic market, which is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. Meanwhile, factories would move back to the United States to build products for sale in North America.
So we could one day be seeing more made in the USA labels. But how many more American workers will be stamping them on? That's where things become tricky. One of the great misconceptions about America's manufacturing decline is that the country no longer builds things. That's simply not true. As the BCG report notes, the value of U.S. output increased by a third between 1997 and 2008, a period when the economy shed millions of manufacturing jobs. The culprit: productivity.
U.S. factories simply need workers than in the past. We've become exceptionally good at making products using very little labor and lots of machines. Think of that GM Superbowl ad with the oddly sympathetic robot arm that starts moping after it drops a bolt. That sulking hunk of metal is the real face of most U.S. factories.
Of course, someone has to operate all those robots. The increasing importance of technology on the factory floor has turned manufacturing into a high skill field, as the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland noted in a recent speech. As manufacturers have laid off blue collar workers, they've been hiring more college grads. That means, even if BCG is right, and a return of U.S. factories creates 2 to 3 million domestic jobs, it won't be a cure-all for the problems that now afflict the labor market. Building things takes a degree. And the current jobs crisis has, more than anything, been about the plight of the undereducated male -- the kind of worker who increased productivity made redundant in the first place.
The return of more manufacturing would be a great boon for the U.S. But it doesn't mean yesterday's factory worker will get his job back.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
In the age of the digital hermit, a psychologist explains what it means to avoid other people—and what to do about it.
People today might not actually be avoiding social interaction any more than they did in past decades, but they’re certainly more vocal about it. The rise of digital communication seems to be spawning a nation of indoor cats, all humble-bragging about how introverted they are and ordering their rides and groceries without ever talking to a human.
Sometimes reclusiveness can be a sign of something more serious, though. Social anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses, but it’s still poorly understood outside of scientific circles. The good news is that it’s highly treatable, according to Stefan G. Hofmann, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University.
I recently talked with Hofmann about how social anxiety works and what people who feel socially anxious can do about it. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a society so prosperous that people would hardly have to work. But that isn’t exactly how things have played out.
How will we all keep busy when we only have to work 15 hours a week? That was the question that worried the economist John Maynard Keynes when he wrote his short essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in 1930. Over the next century, he predicted, the economy would become so productive that people would barely need to work at all.
For a while, it looked like Keynes was right: In 1930 the average workweek was 47 hours. By 1970 it had fallen to slightly less than 39.
But then something changed. Instead of continuing to decline, the duration of the workweek stayed put; it’s hovered just below 40 hours for nearly five decades.
So what happened? Why are people working just as much today as in 1970?
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Inside Walmart’s curious, possibly ingenious effort to get customers to build up their savings accounts
Late last summer, Dawn Paquin started keeping her money on a prepaid debit card from Walmart instead of in a traditional checking account. The wages from her factory job—she works from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., inspecting blades on industrial bread-slicing machines—now go directly onto the Visa-branded card, which she can use like a regular debit card, though unlike most debit cards, it is not linked to a checking or savings account. She made the switch after a $4 check she wrote to buy coffee for herself and a friend tipped her checking account below the required minimum and triggered $100 in overdraft fees.
This was before she got the factory gig, and she wasn’t working full-time. Paquin lives in Salem, Illinois, where, she told me recently, if you don’t have a college degree, your job choices are “fast food or factory.” Money was extremely tight. “I kind of had a bit of resentment about banks after that,” she said dryly.
The Piano Man hasn’t released a new pop album since 1993. How does he continue to sell out stadiums?
For those of you who are sick of wondering, this is what happens at a Billy Joel concert: A mother tries to cajole her reluctant young son to twist with her to “Only the Good Die Young.” A 45-year-old man in a Billy Joel-themed softball jersey, sitting third row and visible to all, hoists aloft a New Jersey vanity license plate that reads “Joel FN” and uses it to air-drum to “Pressure.” Three 20-somethings on a ladies’ night out shoot a Boomerang of themselves swaying to “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” A sexagenarianin business attire uses a lull during Joel’s Perestroika-era ditty “Leningrad” to crush some work emails on his BlackBerry Priv. A 19,000-strong congregation—carpenter jeans and Cartier watches, Yankee caps and yarmulkes, generationally diffuse and racially homogenous—all dance, terribly and euphorically, to “Uptown Girl.”
Online communities like those on Tumblr are perpetuating ideas of "beautiful suffering," confusing what it means to be clinically depressed.
A few months ago, Laura U., a typical 16-year-old at an international school in Paris, sat at her computer wishing she looked just like the emaciated women on her Tumblr dashboard. She pined to be mysterious, haunted, fascinating, like the other people her age that she saw in black and white photos with scars along their wrists, from taking razor blades to their skin. She convinced herself that the melancholic quotes she was reading—“Can I just disappear?” or “People who die by suicide don’t want to end their lives, they want to end their pain”—applied to her.
The host’s ouster serves as an object lesson about what happens when morality and money come to a head.
Here are some of the things Bill O’Reilly has done, allegedly, to the women he has worked with throughout his two decades at the Fox News Channel:
approaching an African American woman whose desk was near his, referring to her as “hot chocolate,” and grunting like a “wild boar”
offering multiple unwanted sexual advances and lewd comments to a woman producer on his show, phoning her “when it sounded as if he was masturbating” and describing “various sexual fantasies”
suggesting that she “buy a vibrator,” “engage in phone sex or a threesome with him,” and listen to “the details of his alleged sexual encounters with a cabana masseuse, airline stewardesses, and Thai sex-show workers”
threatening to make any woman who dared to complain about his behavior “pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born”