Unlike highly favored Wall Street, which now employs fancy financial footwork to report a return to profitability, the nation's industrial core is increasingly marginalized by an administration that appears anxious to embrace a decidedly post-industrial future.
Indeed, a recent survey of manufacturers found that most see the stimulus as only "slightly effective" for them. This is no surprise, since the lion's share of the $800 billion is going to bolster the banks, with scraps spread out to green projects, health care and education.
The administration's priorities reflect a new political consciousness that, if not openly anti-industrial, seems to minimize manufacturing's role in the nation's long-term future.
Just examine the demands placed upon
This disparity reflects the close ties between Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, chief economic adviser Larry Summers and other top administration officials with the increasingly Democratic financial elite.
Perhaps most revealing has been the somewhat bizarre choice to make mega-contributor and investment banker Steve Rattner as the "car czar" overlooking Detroit's fate. Rattner, after all, has limited experience with the auto industry. (His expertise is largely in media.) "About all he knows about cars," joked one person who has worked with him, "is that his chauffeur drives one."
Rattner may yet lose his post because of his involvement in New York's latest pension fund scandal – but his appointment speaks volumes about the disdain with which the administration views the industrial economy.
It also reflects an attitude – common among the academics, financiers and high-tech executives closest to the administration – that "smart" people can solve any problem better than someone with more hands-on experience but perhaps a less lofty IQ or a less tony advanced degree.
To be sure, we should be wary of an approach like the Bush administration's well-demonstrated embrace of mediocrity. But it is also dangerous to embrace a mindset that disdains all practical skill and areas of business not dominated by the cognitive elite.
These days this mentality appears alongside an overall contempt for the tangible economy. Very few Obama appointees have ties to the country's core productive sectors: manufacturing, agriculture, energy. Veterans of investment banking, academia or the public sector, they seem to see the economy more in terms of making media, images and trades – as opposed to actually making things.
Such an approach also reinforces the administration's surprising radicalism on the environmental front. Most industrial firms understand that precipitous moves to limit greenhouse gases and decimate domestic fossil fuels threaten America's international competitiveness. Apparently, patience with and sympathetic understanding for Wall Street's foibles is one thing; figuring out sustainable economic and energy policies that are friendly to industry is another.
Unless something is done soon, the Obama policy could end up eroding more than just the nation's industrial base. The president's much-ballyhooed expansion of "green jobs" to make up for massive manufacturing layoffs worked well on the stump – but in reality it's largely a fantasy.
Certainly windmills and solar panels won't rescue many of the communities at the bottom of our recent list of best cities for job growth. Industrial towns like Lansing and Flint, Mich., as well as Janesville, Wisc. may only see more devastation.
Since 2007, these areas have lost somewhere between 15% and 25% of their industrial jobs. In Flint, nearly half have disappeared since 2003. These are the places where the American dream is dying most rapidly; Big Three bastions Michigan and Ohio have seen the quickest declines in per-capita incomes for most of this decade.
The situation may be getting worse. Industrial decline could even be spreading to areas – like Houston, Texas, Fargo, N.D., Tulsa, Okla., or Anchorage, Alaska – that have actually been gaining industrial jobs. One culprit here may prove to be the administration's anti-fossil fuels agenda, which could undermine even healthy firms and healthy regions. Even if Congress refuses to approve draconian rules for cap and trade or new taxes on greenhouse gas emissions, the "green" agenda could be imposed by the federal apparat anyway, through bureaucratic fiat. One harbinger could be the EPA's recent actions to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
All this doesn't bode well for the country's prosperity and for the prospects of millions of Americans. As demographer Richard Morrill has pointed out, traditionally, regions with industrial economies have been more egalitarian than the finance-driven areas. If this anti-manufacturing trend continues, more of America will resemble New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, places sharply divided between a growing class of low-wage workers and a relative few hegemons in finance, academia and media.
Perhaps even worse, by stimulating everything but industry, the administration risks accelerating the very imbalance between production and consumption that is one key reason for the nation's economic woes. Padding incomes by handing out money without increasing production may indeed prove a great way to stimulate economies – that is, those of industrial exporters like Germany, Japan and, most critically, China.
Over time, Republicans may try to make these points. But economic conservatives have tended, if anything, to be at least equally clueless about the importance of industry. As far back as 1984 – the peak of the Reagan era – the New York Stock Exchange issued a report stating that "a strong manufacturing economy is not a requisite for a prosperous economy."
Disdain for industry has since grown as industrial employment has ebbed and the finance, service and media industries – and other non-tangible fields – have gained workers. Yet few understand how a swelling manufacturing trade deficit, which has grown ten-fold since 1984 to over $800 billion in 2007, has undermined the nation's financial position. It has shifted so much wealth to countries focused on productive industry and energy.
In the long run, too, it's not just forlorn factory towns that get hurt. A strong manufacturing sector also boosts science and technology; the industrial workforce is increasingly dominated by engineers and highly trained technicians, many of whom are in increasingly short supply. Marketers, media firms, advertising agencies and software companies all benefit when industry expands.
Fortunately, the situation isn't hopeless. Despite commonly held assumptions, American can still compete industrially – and could do even better with the right investments in both human and physical infrastructure. In fact, despite unfavorable trade policies and growing regulatory burdens, American factories have remained among the most productive in the world; output has doubled over the past 25 years, and productivity has grown at a rate twice that of the rest of the economy.
Clearly, not all American factories are run by the kind of boobs who governed General Motors and other failed enterprises. A 2008 McKinsey study noted American factories actually were, on average, considered the best-managed in the world – ahead, albeit slightly, of competitors based in advanced nations like Germany, Sweden and Japan, and considerably better than their counterparts in key emerging competitors China and India.
To take advantage of these assets, American industry needs government to recognize their importance. We need incentives for improved productivity and investment, including ones for those companies employing "green" technologies. Another step would be to include accurate "carbon accounting" of goods produced elsewhere – particularly in places like China, whose production tends to generate more pollutants than those in more regulated countries like the U.S. Greening may be good, but it should not become another excuse for American de-industrialization.
Finally, President Obama should recognize that expanding industry presents some of our best chances for future growth. Once the world recovers from the current financial crisis, there will be another surge in demand, particularly from developing countries, for the basic products that the U.S. can produce at prodigious levels, such as foodstuffs and airplanes, as well as farm, energy and construction equipment. The strategic opening for American firms may indeed be greater than any other time since the years after World War II.
"We're in the midst of 2 to 4 billion people around the world rising out of abject poverty and demanding a better living standard," notes Daniel R. DiMicco, head of
Hopefully the Obama administration will overcome its preoccupation with post-industrial and green industries and allow American firms and workers to take advantage of this historic opportunity. If they fail to do so, the Great Lakes, Appalachia, parts of the Southeast and other regions can expect ever more economic devastation. Rather than delivering much-anticipated "hope" to the most beleaguered parts of the country, the administration could instead leave a legacy of wasted potential and economic misery that will haunt communities, and the entire country, for generations.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.