Mendoza School of Business

Nostalgia for factory jobs that will never come back

Published: February 17, 2012 / Author: Jeff Bergstrand

If there is a central public sentiment about economics prevailing in America right now, it seems to be this: We want to go back to our manufacturing roots.

The heyday of manufacturing, the block-long plants that produce not just tangible goods, but big, heavy ones like cars, gave us economic stability once; it can do it again.

On Wednesday, President Obama spoke at the Master Lock factory in Milwaukee and said, “What’s happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. What happens in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh and Milwaukee, that’s what we’ve got to be shooting for, is to create opportunities for hardworking Americans to get in there and start making stuff again and sending it all over the world — products stamped with three proud words: Made in America.”

But as with most nostalgic visions, this one doesn’t reflect economic realities.

First, it’s understandable why we have a romantic association with manufacturing. “Factory nostalgia” is economically legitimate, because it harkens back to the period of the greatest growth in the U.S. economy in history, basically 1950 to 1973.

During that period, there was growth not just in production, but in real household incomes, which is something we have seen little of for the last 40 years. This gave rise to a burgeoning, powerful middle class, and more than that, a sense that all of America shared in the economic boom, with the assembly line tethering us like an anchor to shared prosperity.

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