Please bear with me as some issues are simplified for clarity and length.
The American Economy has evolved a lot in the 234 years since the Declaration of Independence. We’ve been an agrarian economy. At times our economy has been driven by various commodities such as gold or steel; in fact, it is still widely thought that Nevada became a state because the Union needed a source of silver (and electoral votes) during the Civil War.
By the end of the 19th century, the ground was laid for the United States to become a real economic superpower. Instead of relying foodstuffs and commodities that were in some ways an accident of being a physically huge nation, worked by a growing workforce with plenty of ambitious immigrants buying into rhetoric of a “land of opportunity”, manufacturing came to the forefront. At the same time, the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Age; the standard of living rose for the working class not because the Tycoons were philanthropic, but because workers demanded things like living wages and the 40 hour work week that some of us still enjoy today.
Henry Ford, racist and antisemitic man that he was, did have a flash of genius when he decided to pay workers enough that they could buy his product, and enough time off to enjoy using it. Not only did it increase the number of potential buyers, he found that employee turnover plummeted. Other employers and competitors had to follow suit, and America now had quality finished goods to export.
At some point, “American” manufacturers realized that they could have their products made in countries with lower labor costs, put it on a boat to the United States, and still make more money selling it here, even if they had to discount the price a little bit! They could pull this off at least in part because even if they were paying a wage that was above the local average, it was still cheaper than American labor as they weren’t paying for retirement benefits or health insurance plans, they weren’t paying any payroll taxes or workers comp insurance on those employees, and things like environmental laws or worker protection laws were almost non-existent. To top it all off, desperate third world nations were sometimes willing to make financial incentives to build a factory and create what they saw as jobs of the future. International treaties such as NAFTA sped this process along. The best part of this was that the people at the top made more money, which in turn gave them more power.
But don’t worry about the factories closing, American students were told, you don’t really want to work in a dirty, smelly, dangerous factory all day, do you? No of course not! There is a future for you in information and service! See all these new computers? Somebody has to run them, and write programs in languages like COBOL or FORTRAN for them. Somebody has to figure out where all this information we are creating is, so there will be a need for people like research librarians and file clerks. And hey, worst case scenario, somebody still has to flip burgers and sack groceries.
Of course the problem with a lot of that “information economy” work is that it can even more easily be farmed out overseas. You don’t even have to get a finished product shipped back; just upload it to the server and it doesn’t matter whether it was compiled in San Francisco or Calcutta. Sure there are issues that come up with language and cultural gaps. Oops and I guess they don’t really have even similar data protection laws. But hey, it’s cheap.
And producing cheaper goods and services, we are told, is just the only way they can compete and give us the low low prices the American consumer demands. Of course there’s little talk about the reason the American consumer demands it: his wages just don’t go as far as they used to go.
So we don’t produce very much in the way of goods anymore, very little of the stuff you use every day is “Made in America, even if you wanted to buy American made products you can’t, the only thing we really export is money, at times we don’t even have a trade surplus in foodstuffs anymore, industrialized nations are busy plundering Africa for diamonds and rare minerals, construction is off sharply due to the real estate crash, and even those high-tech information jobs we were promised were the future are really some other country’s future. That leaves us with what is cheerily called a “service economy,” because “service” is the only thing you can’t do just as well from a thousand miles away.
And some unknown portion of this “service economy” is actually an underground economy of work performed at below minimum wage, with little thought to workplace safety, often by undocumented immigrants who fear deportation if they speak up. Frustratingly, in addition to some “conservatives,” even some “liberals” and “progressives” say we “need” these laborers. After all, they tell us, who do you expect to mow our lawns, pick our produce, and clean our floors, duh.
What does that leave for Americans who want a “living” wage at a legal job? A short list of “opportunities” such as the small number of professions that can’t be done from overseas (e.g., doctor, lawyer, nurse, teacher), selling goods imported from overseas, the grocery business, the hospitality industry, and food service. So I call the “service economy” more of a “latte economy”; at least Starbucks has employee benefits.
The thing is that we can’t really sustain a whole economy on that. We can’t run a country on selling one another lattes and Chinese made shoes forever. To have a vibrant and durable economy, we have to make something tangible that won’t all too soon be gone.
To get out of this economic mess, we must make things in this country that last, that people want, that people can afford, and that people in other nations might conceivably want. Somewhere out there are Americans with ideas about what those could be, but they are stymied by a lack of funding, and a system rigged against production and anyone who wants to play by the rules. But it’s going to take more than some tax breaks; that only helps when a business is profitable enough to owe taxes already. And it’s going to take more than lip service about government contracts; you have to be big enough to complete such a contract before you can get one. It’s going to take a leveling of the playing field so that start-ups can get working capital, develop products, and compete.
The Latte Economy must be replaced by something sustainable if the United States is to continue as a viable country. We can’t continue to export our money forever; at some point we will run out.