Looked at one way, the usual way, a factory is a building housing machines. Looked at another, a factory is a machine. The building is merely the casing and almost everything inside it is a component of the machine, including most of the human beings working there.
Their function is to help drive the machine.
Simple machines enhance what it means to be human. They make us stronger, faster, and, lately, smarter. They provide the brute force we need to work (or play) harder. But when machines became more complex, they started being able to do the work for us. Some of it. They couldn’t do all of it because they couldn’t see, they couldn’t feel, they couldn’t think, they couldn’t remember. To function, they needed components that could see, could feel, could think, that had memories and, incidentally, opposable thumbs. So their designers and engineers built into them those components. Those components are called workers. But they might as well be called widgets.
Some jobs in the factory don’t require the humans holding them to meld with the machine. Managers, engineers, skilled operators stand apart, actually running the machine. Some jobs require special skills and those jobs use the machines the way machines should be used, to enhance what it is to be human. But most of the jobs aren’t even really jobs. They’re functions. The humans performing them are basically carbon-based components of the machine assigned specific and limited tasks in the process. They enhance the machine. They are cogs in the machine.
There are increasingly fewer of all these jobs, not just because factories are closing but because the machines don’t need them or as many of them to function.
This is a good thing, in the grand scheme of things.
It’s not what people are for.
We weren’t put here to make the machines go.
In the grand scheme of things, it will be a great day when the idea of a human being working on an assembly line will strike us as curious and quaint and primitive a notion as the idea of one pushing a plow.
At one point machines saved people from being essentially livestock. At some point they will save us from being widgets.
At some point.
Unfortunately, that point is a long way away.
In the meantime, as Mr Pierce keeps reminding us, people got no jobs, they got no money.
We have to do something about that.
Ideally we need to shore up our manufacturing base, bring jobs home from overseas, build new factories, expand the ones we still have.
We could jump-start new industries that would open new factories and require old ones to refit and retool and remodel and expand. (I probably don’t need to point out to you, though, which political party seems hellbent on making sure that doesn’t happen. Light rail, anyone? Green energy? Keeping the auto industry alive?) But even if we manage all that, those factories will need fewer human components to make them run than the old ones.
They aren’t going away.
One thing we can do is show people who want and need the work that there are other paths in life than the one that leads up to the factory gates and help them take those paths.
One of those paths is called education.
The prosperous suburb I grew up in was next door to a city that was in serious decline when I was a kid. Schenectady had relied on two industries. General Electric and the American Locomotive Company. ALCO closed long before I was born. I wasn’t aware of it but GE was in the processes of shedding jobs by the thousands. And there was a neighborhood we passed through on our increasingly less frequent trips to what was left of the city’s dying downtown that had been working class but which had become working poor, at best, just plain poor for the most part. You’ll know what to picture if I tell you that you’d be able to tell at a glance that most of the young men and women who lived there were unemployed or underemployed. (Sadly, I feel I have to point out that the neighborhood was predominantly white.) And I don’t know where I came up with the idea, if I overheard some adult say it or if I thought it up myself, but I used to describe it as a neighborhood full of people sitting around waiting for the ALCO plant to re-open.
Mean, callous, harsh. Basically true.
Even though the young men and women in the neighborhood had been small children, even babies when the plant closed, they knew their parents and grandparents had worked there and made good livings doing so. And since parents of all classes tend to raise their children to grow up to be versions of themselves, most of them had probably grown up thinking of themselves as factory workers in the making, even though there was no factory for them to work at.
Of course they knew that and while they wished it was otherwise and hoped “times” would change, they didn’t just sit around if they could help it. They made do. But they didn’t know what else to do beyond making do.
College wasn’t in their thinking, and not just because it wasn’t within their financial reach. They didn’t see college as a path for people like them.
In high school, I got to know some kids my age from that neighborhood through occasional interactions between my school and theirs. I was surprised that they regarded our two schools as bitter rivals and generally loathed and despised us. I didn’t know anybody at my school who gave their school that much thought, which of course tells you a lot that’s not flattering about us. But I was naive and blind and didn’t understand why they were so mad at us. I knew they thought we were rich, which, comparatively, I suppose we were. They thought were spoiled, and I’m sure we were that. They thought we were privileged, and that was definitely true. But they also thought we were all weenies. (Is that still a word?)
They sneered at us because we were going to college.
That I really didn’t get.
I get it now, of course, but at the time all I could think was, Why aren’t you going to college? Why don’t you want to go to college?
These kids seemed smart to me. Many of them were hard-working and ambitious, more hard-working and ambitious than I and many of my classmates were even. But the ambitious ones all seemed to aspire to blue collar jobs (that weren’t there) and careers or at least temporary careers in the military. This was true even of kids who had talents that could have taken them into the whitest collared of white collar jobs. I knew potential lawyers, doctors, college professors, and artists who dreamed only of jobs as spot welders and thought those dreams were out of their reach.
I’m guessing now that they just couldn’t see themselves as college material and they didn’t know how to make themselves into college material, whatever they thought that was, and, even if they did, they didn’t know how to begin to go to college.
But more to the point they probably didn’t have many examples in their lives of people like them going to college as a way up and out.
In his thin-skinned and narcissistic response to the President’s “silver spoons” remarks, Mitt Romney missed the point completely. But then Mitt is very touchy on the subject of his money and privilege. The President wasn’t talking about him and definitely wasn’t talking to him. He was talking to young people like the kids I knew from that neighborhood. The country is dotted with neighborhoods and even whole towns full of people waiting for the ALCO plant to reopen. The President was, as he often is, talking to the children and young adults in those neighborhoods and towns and telling them that they can do more than sit and wait. He and Michelle are very conscious of themselves as role-models. The President is pointing out to those kids that they have options. They can do something. They can be like him.
“If I could do it, you can do it.”
What else did you think he was saying when he said Yes, we can?
He’s offering hope in the form of himself and Michelle and their family as examples of what to hope for. He’s showing them how they can realize those hopes for themselves.
You would think his would be a message conservatives would embrace whole-heartedly. Work hard, study hard, better yourself.
But then, again, I don’t have to remind you which Party denigrates education these days and is working to make it harder for anybody but the children of the rich to go to college.
I think Rick Santorum was being a lying hypocrite when he accused the President of being elitist when he encourages people to go to college. Santorum believes that people should stay in their God-appointed places and some of us are appointed to be cogs in the machine and we should thank the Lord He granted us even that. (Mitt thinks this way too, only probably without as many layers of pietistic nonsense. There are winners and there’s the Help. It’s as simple as that.) But never mind what Santorum really thinks. The implication is that the President has contempt for manual labor and work done outside an office and for the people who do it. And of course that’s a lie. The President knows those jobs are important and he respects the dignity and the hard work of the people who do them. He is trying to create more of those jobs. He’s trying to open new factories. He’s trying to create construction jobs. If he had his way no city or town in the country would be forced to layoff cops and firefighters and janitors and plow drivers and school cafeteria workers.
All the President is saying is that there are other ways up and out. What he wants to do is make those ways more available and more navigable for more people. The President knows that even if and when the new factories open and the old factories re-tool and expand there still won’t be the need for as many carbon-based components to keep the machines functioning as there used to be.
Life will be better for those who find other ways up and out or, at any rate, by some measures statistically probably will be. But there’s a benefit for those who go to work in the factories.
The fewer people lining up for those jobs the better the chances the people in line have of getting one. Some of those jobs will be as managers, engineers, operators, technicians, and other skilled workers doing what the machines can’t do even with the help of robots and computers. (Jobs that, not incidentally, Rick, require college degrees or some form of education beyond high school.) But most of those jobs will be as human components in the machine. BUT…even though there will be fewer of those jobs, if there are fewer people willing to work as cogs in the machine, the ones who are become more valuable to the machine’s owners.
You can put people to work as cogs in a machine but if you know you’re going to have a lot of trouble replacing those cogs you’re more likely and willing to treat them something more than cogs.
Maybe even as human beings.
You’ll pay them well, treat them well, offer them benefits and the prospect of a secure retirement.
And I don’t have to remind you which Party is doing its damnedest to see that we don’t get to that point.