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.
Despite warnings, Trump gazed directly at the eclipse.
During the solar eclipse today, President Donald Trump stepped onto the White House balcony with his wife and his son Barron, and he looked up at the sun.
According to White House reporters, an aide shouted a warning that he should not look at the sun. Nevertheless, he persisted.
There were parts of the United States, along path of totality, that allowed people to look directly at the eclipse. But Washington, D.C., was not among them.
How much damage can a person do by staring at the sun for a few seconds?
As many children are warned, there is indeed no “safe” amount of time to stare directly at the sun. Note that no ophthalmologists recommend any amount of glancing or squinting at the eclipse. Against the energy of the sun, human eyelids are like a dam built of tissue paper.
The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and an act of sacrilege.
Taboo and sacredness are among the most important words needed to understand Charlottesville and its aftermath. Taboo refers to things that are forbidden for religious or supernatural reasons. All traditional societies have such prohibitions—things you must not do, touch, or eat, not because they are bad for you directly, but because doing so is an abomination, which may bring divine retribution. But every society also makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good. The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and saw President Trump commit an act of sacrilege by violating one of our society’s strongest taboos.
A tour of the solar eclipse’s path reveals a nation that fought to maintain a different sort of totality.
Totality is everything, say those who chase solar eclipses. When the moon fully obscures the sun and casts its shadow on Earth, the result is like nothing you’ve seen before—not even a partial eclipse. A merely partial eclipse does not flip day to night, because the sun is bright enough to light our fields of vision with only a tiny fraction of its power. But when the sun and moon align just so, a little piece of Earth goes dark in the middle of the day. In this path of totality, night comes suddenly and one can see the shape of the moon as a circle darker than black, marked by the faint backlight of the sun’s corona. Astronomers and eclipse chasers chart carefully to be sure that they can watch from exactly the right place at the right time. They know that you cannot compromise with the sun. For a dark sky, the sun must be banished altogether.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
On Monday night, Trump offered a new plan for Afghanistan, combing a military strategy with one that puts Pakistan on notice for supporting militants, and saying while the U.S. wanted the Afghan government to succeed, U.S. support was not a “blank check.” Trump also moved decisively away from the Bush-era policy of the U.S. as a force to spread democracy overseas.
The cartoonist defended the president in a podcast debate with Sam Harris. The portrait he painted of Trump supporters was not flattering.
Sam Harris, the atheist philosopher and neuroscientist, has recently been using his popular Waking Up podcast to discuss Donald Trump, whom he abhors, with an ideologically diverse series of guests, all of whom believe that the president is a vile huckster.
This began to wear on some of his listeners. Wasn’t Harris always warning against echo chambers? Didn’t he believe in rigorous debate with a position’s strongest proponents? At their urging, he extended an invitation to a person that many of those listeners regard as President Trump’s most formidable defender: Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, who believes that Trump is “a master persuader.”
Their conversation was posted online late last month. It is one of the most peculiar debates about a president I have ever encountered. And it left me marveling that parts of Trump’s base think well of Adams when his views imply such negative things about them.
“Medicare for all” is a popular idea, but for Americans, transitioning to such a system would be difficult, to say the least.
French women supposedly don’t get fat, and in the minds of many Americans, they also don’t get stuck with très gros medical bills. There’s long been a dream among some American progressives to truly live as the “Europeans1” do and have single-payer health care.
Republicans’ failure—so far—to repeal and replace Obamacare has breathed new life into the single-payer dream. In June, the majority of Americans told Pew that the government has the responsibility to ensure health coverage for everyone, and 33 percent say this should take the form of a single government program. The majority of Democrats, in that poll, supported single payer. A June poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation even found that a slim majority of all Americans favor single payer.