I was talking to a Farmer recently (until about 1750, any job which wasn’t involved in agricultural production wasn’t “real”). He was telling me about how his new Tractor (he had one of the four-tracked Leviathans that Richard Hammond chose in that episode of Top Gear) could plough. Basically, the GPS could be set to have the furrows overlap within a few inches. The productivity gains mean that he can plough an extra field or two a day just from not ploughing the same bits twice by eliminating overlap. The Tractor is then hired out at profitable rates to other, smaller farmers. The same is true for Combine harvesters and the like. The relentless focus on efficiency drives productivity improvements, and has done since the industrial revolution.
A small cadre of highly skilled professionals do the jobs with enormous machines once done by vast armies of peasant labourers; which is what’s happening to manufacturing. British industrial production is rising barring recessionary glitches, UK industrial production has kept rising for most of the last 100 years. We are still producing lots of things that can be dropped on a foot. It’s just it’s no longer done by the descendants of those peasants who left the land during the industrial revolution to seek work in factories. Those factories still exist, but they employ a small number of highly paid people to operate machines which do the riveting, welding, assembling and polishing. Each machine takes does the job of hundreds of people.
That’s what happened in Agriculture, and is happening in Manufacturing. And THIS IS A GOOD THING. Because all those people not employed in riveting in Tyneside shipyards or Scything Lincolnshire corn fields are employed doing something else for someone else. All that productive labour has been freed, but we’re still getting the food produced, in abundance the Lincolnshire harvestman would have thought impossible.
The majority of Western economies are now services. Even the Germans, who’ve a niche in Machine tools and Automobiles have only 21% of their economy in making things they can drop on their feet.
And this reflects another point. Manufactured products are getting cheaper, so to have material wealth unimaginable to our Lincolnshire harvestman requires far fewer hours of Labour to achieve. Thus cars, the most expensive manufactured products most of us buy, are getting cheaper relative to average earnings, decade by decade. A reliable runaround would have been beyond the means of a WW2 factory worker, but is available to a cleaning lady now. So the same car forms a smaller part of the economy. Having spent less on the car, we can spend more on clothes, shoes, music, computers, kitchen appliances etc, and in so doing provide jobs to people supplying those things. Above all we can pay for people do do things for us – cut our hair, serve us food in restaurants, mediate for us legally, invest our surplus production into other productive activities, heal our illnesses and so on.
And because more of our money goes into buying services than it does in buying manufactures, it stands to reason most of us will specialise in providing services.
The ultimate logic of Adam Smiths division of Labour is that people will, over time, supply our needs with fewer and fewer inputs as we get better at doing it. Thus an activity, agriculture, which occupied the lives and productive energy of 90% of the population 400 years ago, now only occupies 2%. 100 years ago, people made things. Now we make more, but use fewer people to do it, and instead provide services which so far can’t be done by machine. This list is shrinking.
In time, just as in agriculture, high paying jobs will come from managing machines which produce with extreme efficiency, or by exploiting a niche where people pay an excess for a craft built object. So you can either have a farmer managing an expensive machine, or running an organic farm and charging a premium to people who want to know the name of the cow they’re eating. You can get your clothes mass produced relatively cheaply, or you can pay through the nose for a Tailor on UK wages. You can have your car put together by machines in Nissan’s famous Sunderland plant, or you can buy an Aston Martin, hand-built in Warwickshire.
So the next time you see someone opining of dear old blightly that “we don’t make anything anymore”, remind yourself that we do, it’s just it takes fewer of us to do it. Then ignore everything else that person says, because they clearly know nothing.
Western unemployment is at a high, following a series of financial crises, but to blame this on the death of manufacturing is idiotic. There are structural, cultural and political reasons for excess unemployment, but trying to hold back the tide which has seen manufacturing shrink as a proportion of the economy is wrong, because the very process which sees people replaced by machines is the process by which we all get richer. We’re simply falling down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. 400 years ago we banished famine, 100 years ago we banished material want. The developing nations, by simple dint of abandoning anti-market orthodoxies, followed us and are achieving in 10 years what took us 100. They are copying us. Chinese growth will slow when they have to innovate to grow. There’s nothing remarkable about their growth, it’s just what happens when you lose the dogmatic Marxist idiocy, take the choke hold off and let people get rich.
Globalisation, the search for efficiencies in production, and international trade has led to countless millions of people dragging themselves out of poverty by embracing the opportunities of trade. Korea and Japan joined the west on the technological frontier. China is catching up. As a result the 70m population of a small, damp, foggy Island of the North coast of Europe had a GDP in the same ball-park as a nation 14 times as populous just a few short years ago, but is now dwarfed by the Asian giant. This isn’t a threat, nor is it evidence of Britain’s “decline”.
The next challenge is to banish stress and misery from our lives. I suspect this will be harder. The only caveat is that I have a great deal more faith in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (a much maligned and misunderstood idea) than the idiotic ideas of politicians. Politicians still seem to think manufacturing jobs are special, which suggests they don’t understand why we’re rich. The only limitless resource is man’s ingenuity. Markets aren’t an ideology, they’re simply what works in the absence of one, by deploying that one limitless resource to everyone’s benefit.