Why America’s Future Depends on Rebuilding Our Factories

Yves here. I hate to be a nay-sayer, but it’s awfully late to talk about bringing factories back to the US. The US abandoned the notion that a large degree of self-sufficiency was prudent from a defense and social stability perspective long ago. The US depends on all sorts of electronic devices and we depend on China and Taiwan for chips. Even our soldiers’ uniforms and boots are made in China.

One of the reasons it was convenient for the US to outsource manufacturing to China wasn’t just cheaper labor but also lower environmental standards. For instance, the US ceded rare earths production to China not because we are lacking in them but because the process is destructive. From Yale Environment back in 2013:

The mining of rare earth metals, used in everything from smart phones to wind turbines, has long been dominated by China. But as mining of these key elements spreads to countries like Malaysia and Brazil, scientists warn of the dangers of the toxic and radioactive waste generated by the mines and processing plants.

And that’s before getting to the fact that building new factories would come at a high carbon and materials cost….when global warming and pressure on resources would say that’s not such a hot idea.

Finally, it seems unlikely that the Biden Administration would be committed to industrial strategy, which is what it would take to rebuild domestically.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

Brian Banks and his colleagues at Nipro Glass log 60- or 70-hour weeks right now in a grueling race to produce the glass tubing and vials essential to distributing millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

Banks, a maintenance mechanic for nearly three decades, often feared over the years that the Millville, New Jersey, complex would close like so many other glass-making facilities around the country. If it had, America would struggle all the more to turn the corner on a pandemic that’s already claimed 282,000 U.S. lives.

COVID-19 laid bare the decades-long decline of manufacturing that left the nation straining to produce the face masks, ventilators, glass vials and other items needed to contain the coronavirus. Now, with vaccines nearly ready for distribution, America has an opportunity to defeat the virus and revive a manufacturing base crucial for protecting the country from future crises.

Of all the responsibilities that President-elect Joe Biden faces upon taking office on January 20, none demands more attention—and requires greater urgency—than ramping up production capacity and rebuilding broken supply chains to keep America safe.

Biden’s Build Back Better campaign will make commonsense investments in U.S. manufacturing that put millions to work and ensure a reliable, high-quality supply of critical goods, like the Nipro vials that are used to store not only COVID-19 vaccine but also the other drugs needed to treat hospitalized patients.

“It’s comforting for us to know that what we’re doing is contributing to something major,” explained Banks, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 219M, which represents the 200 or so dedicated workers keeping Nipro’s two Millville plants operating around-the-clock.

“There used to be lots of different places where we could get this glass. They’ve left. If we didn’t have this plant, where would we get it from?” asked Banks, who saw his own local shrink by thousands of members as several local glass facilities closed in recent decades.

In the urgent scramble to build stockpiles of vaccine that can be swiftly released for distribution once federal regulators give approval, multiple drugmakers approached Nipro for help.

The company added production capacity to help meet the flood of orders and relied on workers to put in extra shifts. However, as Banks noted, the nation could have more easily addressed the surging demand if it still had the large number of producers it did in years past and marshaled those collective resources to ramp up glass production.

“The product is still being made, just not in the U.S. It could have stayed here,” said Banks, who already wonders whether Nipro will embrace America’s long-term need for manufacturing and maintain its recently added capacity once the pandemic ends.

Although there are no quick fixes, Build Back Better will not only arrest the long erosion of the manufacturing base but restore America’s power to produce critical goods of all kinds.

Because while the pandemic exposed the nation’s struggle to produce personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, pharmaceutical ingredients and even the super-cold freezers needed to keep COVID-19 vaccines viable during transport, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

Over the past 30 years, as greedy corporations closed thousands of U.S. factories and offshored millions of jobsto exploit cheaper labor and lax environmental laws in other countries, America also gave away the capacity to produce appliances, tires, cars, ball bearings and many other items.

Not even the pandemic, which highlighted the nation’s urgent need for more manufacturing muscle, slowed the corporate quest for ever-higher profits. In September, FreightCar America announced it will close its Alabama factory, eliminate 500 jobs and move operations to Mexico by the end of the year. And Mondelēz, a company that previously shifted American jobs to Mexico, just threatened to close two of its five remaining U.S. Nabisco bakeries.

America needs thousands of other manufactured products every bit as much as it needs PPE. It relies on trucks, boxes and containers to move commerce every day, textiles to refurnish homes devastated by hurricanes and steel, aluminum and other materials for military vehicles.

Biden understands that rebuilding the manufacturing base is a top priority that transcends politics. He will require government agencies and contractors to spend taxpayer dollars on U.S.-made materials, products and labor, ensuring America invests in itself.

“You’ve got to be able to produce things to survive,” observed Libbi Urban, vice president of USW Local 9231, noting that America’s dependence on foreign suppliers puts the nation at grave risk.

Foreign countries can experience their own production problems, jack up prices during emergencies, deliver inferior products or simply cut off supplies any time they want, noted Urban, who represents workers at two ArcelorMittal steel facilities in New Carlisle, Indiana.

“Do you want to rely on steel from China if you want to make battleships, tanks or aircraft carriers? Do you think they’re going to sell you good-quality steel?” said Urban, who chairs her local’s Women of Steel program. “If you go to war with somebody, you can’t rely on them to make your ships or your tanks.”

Even as they put in wearying amounts of overtime, Banks and his colleagues have to maintain constant vigilance and observe numerous safety precautions to protect themselves from COVID-19.

With millions of lives riding on their work, Banks said, they cannot risk a spate of infections that could disrupt production.

Banks hopes America remembers the risks essential workers continue to make. But what he really wants is for the nation to learn from its failures and commit to a full-scale revitalization of manufacturing to keep his members employed—and America safe—long after the threat of COVID-19 is over.

“We’re happy to be doing this,” he said. “But we are also worried. At some point, when this pandemic ends, are we still going to thrive?”

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  1. Pricknick

    Give it up. Sorry to be such a dead ender.
    The time required to make a change in domestic production for us, as in U.S, are long gone.
    There is no profit for shareholders to do so.
    You can not take the greed out of capitalism.
    The plows are as much of history as the plowshares.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You appear clueless about the structure of our system. Huge swathes of it depend on subsidies or direct government purchases: health care, arms making, finance, oil and gas, higher education, real estate. Change what you buy and tax incentives, and you change behavior.

      1. sam

        Yes, the US is still the biggest consumer market in a global economy with an excess of production. If the cost of imports were increased sufficiently through tariff or tax policy there would be a strong financial incentive for reindustrialization sufficient to overcome lack of infrastructure and job skills.

        It can be done, the real question is whether those in power would ever permit it to happen. US underinvestment in productive assets is the mirror image of Chinese over investment – each is unsustainable in the long run but any fundamental change would run contrary to the short term interest of powerful elites.

      2. Alex Cox

        I find the military focus of the piece predictable and disturbing. The author’s principal concerns seem to be steel and aluminium for tanks, aircraft carriers and battleships.

        Ignoring the fact that all three weapons systems are redundant and easily destroyed by cheaper tech, pouring yet more money into these devices is unlikely to fix the economy.

        1. Dirk77

          The military spin was only a part of the piece. That said, look at the military needs manufacturing argument more closely. I’m sure there is some economist out there who has not spent his entire career rationalizing the deeds of his corporate masters. Therefore, there should be a study that looks at military success vs. manufacturing ability. What would it say? In spite of the claims of Silicon Valley code monkeys, war is still to be fought with hardware. Ergo, if our manufacturing capacity is not up to fight a war, then our military budget should be reduced and that excess used to fund domestic manufacturing or mining. 80% would be a good start.

    2. Grant R Falck

      We will never be able to compete with cheap labour and products from developing countries until the overinflated US dollar collapses in value and is no longer the international currency of choice. The huge quantities of US dollars in circulation as the international currency will suddenly have a dramatic collapse in value as they are exchanged for Yuen, gold or some new international currency or cryptocurrency. At that time the Americans and other western economies will be able to open up those factories and compete with a much cheaper dollar. Shouldn’t a true currency be based on units of labour, value of production and property. I wonder if we will see the inevitable western economic collapse in our lifetimes? Might be a good time to transfer what assets we have into real things like property, gold or agricultural land?

  2. The Rev Kev

    I am afraid that I too am pessimistic on this idea without an FDR level of commitment behind it. And it is not so much the factories that have to be rebuilt. That part is probably doable for a lot of things. But you are going to need qualified, trained people to man those factories and with a good team of managers to organize things and get them running again. And there is the rub. Just where are you going to get these people? When those factories were shut down and the machinery sent to China, the workers there were thrown on the scrap heap. By now, many of them would be old and their skills atrophied – if not outdated. Even if you were wanting to encourage older workers back into a factory setting, how does that work in the middle of a pandemic when they would be most vulnerable?

    But then there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room – neoliberalism. It would sabotage every step of the way trying to get those factories running again. How? Let me count the ways, using the word ‘they’ as a shorthand for these neoliberal forces. They would try to use ex-McDonalds workers for the workforce like they did in Boeing’s South Carolina aircraft assembly facility – with terrible quality results. The place would be organized like an Amazon fulfillment center with unions illegal and would be yet another hellscape on earth. They would refuse to pay decent pay but would pay minimum wages which would require those workers to spend their spare time chasing down food stamps. The managers would be MBA types who would game the Federal and State governments for every subsidy that they could and pay themselves outlandish pay-packets while cracking down on workers trying to improve even things like safety. Workers would be expected to go into debt to get the needed training which may never be paid of in their lifetime.

    Who would want to take part in such ventures? Where are the career-paths for people that would want to take part? Or does that career-path start and end on the factory floor? So unless you can improve the work and business culture, I don’s see how it can be successfully done unless as a whole bunch of mini-factories being supported on a local basis. And to do that, you would have to basically keep out the Amazons and all the other large corporations who would see to buy it up as an opportunity to own a company that sells gear vital to America. That has already happened to defence companies. Which is why it cost cost the Air Force $326,785 to replace coffee mugs on Air Force One. It would be more of this but right across the board.

    1. Mr. Magoo

      I suspect the strategy is to build with a higher level of automation, inventory control, etc. Analogy would be the along the lines of a second-mover advantage. Job count would not be as much, but better than assembly, and definitely skill sets required would demand higher wages.

  3. rjs

    what is it that i will depend on in my future that needs to be built in a factory? i mean, other than a coffeepot?

    1. ambrit

      I know you mean well, but….
      Everything material that supports a technical civilization has to be made somewhere. Steel for a myriad of uses. Copper parts for electrical systems, both large and small. Machinery to power the country, feed it, water it, remove and process it’s wastes. The transportation infrastructure that allows the flow of goods from manufacture or growing to processing, finally to consumption, and beyond, to the dump.
      We’re not knapping flint points with which to go hunt Mastodons any more.

      1. JBird4049

        Even when we were using stone tools, it required knappers with years of training and experience often using materials that had been traded (the equivalent of better/worse steel/coal/marble, etc) from hundreds of miles away on permanent trade routes. It only became more true the later the stone age it was as the tools made became better, but also more complex, harder to make, and demanding certain kinds of materials.

        Read on the Neanderthals making spears. Between getting the flint, which might not be locally available, finding or creating the long, straight pole, creating the rope or strands, knapping the stone, then creating the glue, which itself was IIRC several days in the doing, and finally after that multi step and day process, putting it all together. That’s just for one spear.

        The need to find the right materials and then have the capacity to make whatever is needed has been an issue for at least 100,000 years and probably much, much longer.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    Another core issue forgotten about in the discussion about industrialisation or deindustrialization is the availability of skills. If you look at precedents, Germany and Japan re-industrialised with remarkable speed after the complete annihilation of WWII – primarily because they still had a base of highly skilled workers and managers which took a generation for other countries to build up. A key reason why so many companies such as Apple decamped to China, as opposed to other low cost destinations, was the availability of armies of fairly docile but well educated and skilled (or willing to be upskilled) workers. One reason why I am not as optimistic for the future of China as many are is that I think they’ve failed to build on their strength by investing properly in their own education system, which will make them very vulnerable when demography turns against them.

    If there is one lesson from a century or more of research into development and industrialisation, is that you cannot build up industrial capacity without a parallel system of education designed to facilitate the industries. Every country that escaped the middle income trap – Germany, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Ireland, Finland, etc., all have one thing in common – a focus on skills based education. Its not good enough to have elite universities if you don’t have an investment in providing the entire spectrum of skills needed for a modern economy. For the US, this would mean a complete restructuring of its education system – in reality, what seems to be happening is the exact opposite.

    It may be that for many products, modern technology could change things fundamentally – a multiplicity of products that once could only be made in vast complexes with skilled workers can now be churned out in simple local plants using 3D moulding and cutting. But of course this pushes the power into the hands of whoever owns the (very expensive) plant. They may still find it more advantageous to site these around the world so they can play arbitrage games rather than make good products.

    1. Glen

      Totally agree with your comments on this – the US education system is failing on this badly.

      As to 3D printing and machining (or additive and subtraction manufacturing), we use it quite a bit where I work. It is making substantial strides forward. We are now printing turbine blades that can be used in the hot section of a jet engine. But we would also have to have all the industrial base to MAKE the raw materials and the machines. That is a COMPLETE industrial base with foundries, steel working, complex machining, and all the electronics for the controls.

      Still if I had to have a machine shop at home – this has been on my short list for CNC machines:

      Hybrid Complete Machining: Additive Manufacturing and Milling in one machine

      1. wadge22

        That is a cool machine. I work on 5 axis DMU monoblock machines just like that, but without the laser printer bolted on the side. I saw one of those on display at a trade show a few years ago, and was very excited. That would be perfect for me.
        Now when I eff up and put a gouge in a part, I can just print it back to flat.
        Blew out that bore you were sizing? Print about five thou a side back into it and try it again!

        In any case, that’s a very fancy, very expensive, very specialized machine. You won’t be making brake pistons or hot water heater pressure valves in that. You won’t be putting the $13 guy who’s just getting started in this industry in front of it. And when the thing goes down, you won’t be able to get it back running with your own maintenance guy.

        And that, I think, is the metaphorical state of US manufacturing. Even when we try to imagine “our machine shop at home,” we wind up picturing something that looks like a medical wing on a space ship. Because we dont quite remember what a factory is. And anyhow who would be willing to risk getting a sliver?

        1. Glen

          I think we are up to over twenty DMG 5 axis machines at one of our sites, but no laser equipped ones. I’ve bought CNC mills, lathes, grinders, alignment equipment over the years -I actually forget how many. We also used to rebuild CNC machines, but they have become much more buy, use for 15 years or so, and then surplus. The older machines with the huge castings, hand scrapped box ways, those are all gone now, except for a few very specialized machines.

          1. Felix_47

            thanks for the link. DMG Mori is a German firm that joined up with a Japanese firm in 2013. They have an entire academy for trainees. They are innovative. Started back in 1890 or something. After WW1 they were banned from producing for a while by the allies but came back. In WW2 they were totally flattened. Started up again in 1947. Since machine tools are not hi tek and people have to build them and the people who use them don’t have unlimited government or cheap Fed money they can’t seem to make the ROI American bankers and investment people expect. Stock is so so. There were a lot of takeovers (them taking over other manufacturers in Europe and Asia but I think the Mori partnership is 50/50) in its history suggesting that as amazing as their machines and technology is it is not as amazing as the technology pioneered by financial firms and lawyers in the US. Printing paper is just a lot more lucrative I guess. At the Ivy League school I went to the smart kids went to med school back in my day. Now I hear most of them go to Wall Street after HBS or Law School. I heard they even have a combined BS and law degree now for budding transactionalists. The US was relatively undeveloped technologically before WW2. We got a huge number of German scientists and technicians that drove a lot of progress but now I am not sure where the innovators are going to come from. Most Germans would rather live in Germany at this point. I am in Germany and although we learn English most have been to the US and experienced it and go on vacation there but to live there with the health care system and the social turmoil. Not so much. Maybe Chinese innovators could be induced to come to the US. DMG has a plant in Shanghai with the emblem “Quality made in China.”

        2. Glen

          And you are so right. It is getting harder and harder to get good people to run them, and CNC maintenance? Good people there are golden.

          Been there many times with a manager standing over my shoulder asking when he would get his machine back, and the maintenance guy a couple feet away inside the machine slowly shaking his head wondering how we manged to crash the machine like that.

          Once had a operator almost send a big hunk of SS plate he was hogging out right through the door he was standing in front of (lucky for him the tool setter slowed it down a bit.) He was holding the work piece to the table with double sided tape while he blasted it with 50 GPM coolant.

      2. JCC

        As someone who worked as a field service engineer for a machine tool company here in the US many years ago, I am very impressed. Mfg sure has come a long way since I bailed out.

        It would look great in my garage :-)

    2. STEPHEN

      Focused on skills-based education…imported from friendly foreign advisors. That was the real key. Taiwanese firms didn’t learn hiw to build semiconductors from textbooks…they imported expertise alongside the manufacturing technology.

      Robert Kaplan made an interesting arguement in “Earning the Rockies” that the true power of the postwar American workforce was built not by the exclusive elite universities, but in the strength and world-class capabilities of its massive and widely accessible system of land-grant universities. Every nation has a small core of higher education facilities targeted at training its elite. Only the United States had a deep pool of educational opportunity available to a huge portion of the workforce.

      The United States, I hate to say, needs to study and implement the some of the economic policies pursued by the successfully developed small Asian nations – Korea, Taiwan among them. The model is especially applicable to the deindustrialized rust belt.

      A good starting point for anyone interested in how those “miracles” happened would be Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works”

      1. Susan the other

        And today those land grant colleges, many of them state universities, have deteriorated. From providing agricultural, forest, oceanic, hydro and etc. research, along with good engineering colleges and basic physics-research-to-applied-science and extensive outreach services, they have been swamped by elite colleges offering lucrative MBAs and an opportunity to secure a position at some investment bank. IT and AI have taken over American industry. Not that the internet isn’t good. It is good to have. But how practical is all of this now? Can we eat our computers? Several good, focused 5-year plans could get this turned around. But Biden is not the guy to do that. Although he has made some good picks for his administration, should it actually happen.

      2. vao

        Only the United States had a deep pool of educational opportunity available to a huge portion of the workforce.

        Countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland have long had an educational system based on several legs (dating back to the 19th century):

        high schools, comprising universities (Universität), technical high schools (technische Hochschule) and institutes of applied science (Fachhochschule);
        apprenticeship in firms (Lehre);
        and vocational schools (Berufschule, Beruffachschule).

        Especially the breadth of their well-regarded apprenticeship system enabled them to have a large, skilled workforce.

        They also are the European countries that have best kept their industrial sector (and a correspondingly substantial industrial export surplus) alive despite the trend towards a service economy.

    3. Phacops

      Gotta agree. In retrospect and growing up around Detroit in the ’60s one could see the massive skills in tooling that made the Apollo program possible with the innumerable number of tool and die shops supporting that venture, and at a time when in junior high we were required to take a year of machine shop or woodworking. All gone now.

      Since that time, America has also lost leadership in machine tools and are not even in the top ten. These tools are the base of any manufacturing pyramid and are required for making the machines upon which all manufacturing depends. Part of the operational capability for rebuilding manufacturing and supporting processes is effective use of machine tools. I have no confidence in our abilities in that respect. Do we even have sufficient capability and modern automated screw machines to turn out the precision parts necessary for the manufacture of consumer electronics that we take for granted?

      Then, besides skilled workers who MBAs consider as fungible, thinking that manufacturing is an unskilled enterprise, at the level of McDonald’s, as you say, there is a loss of critical support functions, Quality Engineering being one I am familiar with. Every process creates variability in its output, and managing that is critical to generating uniform quality that is designed into the process. This used to be the realm of statistical process control and statistical design of experiments. I still have a copy of Western Electric’s Statistical Quality Control Handbook put together by amazingly skilled manufacturing statisticians. But then, about half a decade before I retired the qualitative Six-Sigma movement was taking hold for those untrained in statistics. There evidently is nothing that can’t be crapified.

      But, I continue to wonder if even training in skills alone is sufficient to support domestic manufacturing without assuring that manufacturing is a good career choice? Just imagine what would happen if “right to work” and unregulated immigration was used as a weapon against licensed professionals as that, and frictionless cross-border flow of money, has been used against manufacturing workers.

      1. Glen


        I have seen this, and seen this, and seen this. It is depressing. MBAs, Wall St, and easy money by wrecking rather than creating has gutted manufacturing, and everything required to create/support manufacturing. especially education.

        I still think we could turn it around, but you would have to do something like get all the big CEOs in the White House and have the President tell them that the next one that reduces our industrial capacity gets served to the rest of you with his head on the plate. Never gonna happen. Wall St owns Biden and the government. China is not STEALING our jobs, technology, factories. American CEOs give it to them.

        1. Felix_47

          Hard to blame them. The Clinton administration and Joe Biden handed them the opportunity to make huge profits with labor arbitrage. When the history of the US empire is written Reagan and Clinton and Biden in the senate will be writ large. One way out might be to open up more Chinese immigration and close off so much migration out of Central America and Africa and the rest of the third world. There are a lot of Chinese innovators but it looks like they would have a better future in China than the US.

    4. km

      To paraphrase Y. Smith, not only have we outsourced the making of things, we have let an entire generation of workers who made the machines that made the things rot away. Pipefitters, electricians, machinists, welders, tool and die makers, etc..

      It’s one thing to wire a house, but these are skills that are not easily re-acquired, at least at the level needed to build a one-off industrial robot or fabricate a machine that makes packaging.

    5. vegeholic

      The local technical school used to offer courses in basic machining and welding along with a sequence of courses leading to proficiency in these skills. Over the last couple of decades it seems that their curriculum has evolved away from these subjects to others: computer skills, medical/dental technician, wind turbine maintenance, and maybe some advanced manufacturing skills like CNC operation and programming. I presume they are responding to what local business owners say that they need. When most of your factories have disappeared, unsurprisingly, the demand for basic fabrication skills goes away. So we seem to have a chicken and egg problem. I think visionary political leaders with a long time horizon and patient “investors” (citizens) are needed to overcome this stalemate. Who will vote them into power when the short term payoff is zero and the long term payoff is likely but uncertain?

    6. TimmyB

      When US manufacturing decamped for China or Mexico for that matter, those countries did not have experienced well-educated workers. Instead, they had peasants willing to learn and were cheap enough so that inefficiencies during their learning process were acceptable.

      Concerning education, skills based or otherwise, there are few jobs waiting for those with education in the US. This is why the claim that “more education” will get someone a job is little more than bait for a cruel debt trap.

  5. alex

    Most of the countries labor and production have been outsourced to, with the exception of China, are, to some degree, either vassal states or too dependent on US trade or easliy coerced by militairy means, and as such pose no problem.
    It would be naive to think that the well-being of the population at large would be a consideration – the elites are doing just fine, whatever happens.
    The essential goods – nukes and fighter planes – are still produced in the US, that is all that matters.

  6. Glen

    So a little bit on this paragraph:

    The mining of rare earth metals, used in everything from smart phones to wind turbines, has long been dominated by China. But as mining of these key elements spreads to countries like Malaysia and Brazil, scientists warn of the dangers of the toxic and radioactive waste generated by the mines and processing plants.

    That radioactive waste that is mined with rare earth elements? It’s thorium. It can be used to make those small modular nuclear reactors people mention.

    Most people don’t realize – if we went for nuclear reactors using existing designs? You need uranium. It’s rare. They figure we would have enough to run reactors for 100 years. Maybe.

    Thorium on the other hand is very common. We would have enough for 100,000 years.

    China and India are doing work on thorium reactors. America was. We had a running prototype reactor back in the 60’s.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Thorium reactions, like Fusion reactors, are always 10 years away from commercial viability, just like they have been for the last 60 years.

      Germany, Canada Japan, Israel, China, Russia, Norway, India, and others have spent a lot of money on thorium reactors, and continue to do so, with nothing remotely looking like a commercial reactor coming from it. Thorium is common, but so is Uranium, the world isn’t short of it. It may have a role in the future (50+ years), but it’s no magic bullet.

      1. Glen

        OK, I stand corrected. And I am not opposed to any form of solar. I just want to point out that there are potential uses for the thorium (dug up with rare earth elements) in MSR reactors:


        As to ten years away, let’s put fusion in that bucket and make it fifty years away. Not that I am opposed to fusion either.

        As to the magic bullet – I think it comes down to the ultimate dirty word in American consumer culture – less. Make do with less.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I don’t doubt that Thorium has a role – and its particularly important to research it as it is potentially a means to provide nuclear power without the risk of weapons proliferation (or at least, reduced risk), but sometimes I read articles on thorium which seem to assume that its just been sidelined or ignored. The reality is that very large sums of money have been invested in it, and lots of good engineers have tried to build reactors. I’ve no idea why they haven’t succeeded, but the fact that they haven’t makes me guess (as so often with nuclear) that its not technically possible, at least not with todays technology.

          There is, unfortunately, a natural tendency in these circumstances for the proponents to cry ‘but if we had more money!’ or ‘but if only those nasty greenies didn’t realise its us who are going to save the world!’, when in reality the reasons are more mundane (they failed).

          The same excuses pop up all the time with every new nuclear technology – modular reactors, sodium cooled reactors, fast breeders, fusion, pebble bed reactors, etc., etc. They’ve all been tried, and apart from very small specialised uses (like building submarines to blow the planet up), they’ve not come even close to commercial reality.

          I’m not anti-nuclear – in the long term I think its probably the only solution if we are to get past the immediate climate crisis. But I’ve seen nothing to persuade me that nuclear can be a significant answer to our problems within the 2-3 decades required to prevent planetary catastrophe. Its too expensive, and the supposed new designs don’t work. We know this, because all the nuclear powers are focusing their expenditure on tried and tested 50 year old designs, and even those are far too expensive.

          We know what works and is economically viable- wind, solar, hydro, smart grids, etc., and large scale power storage is increasingly viable. Plus of course, reducing our energy needs in a major way. In my opinion, anything else is a distraction.

          1. larry

            Spot on, PK. Fusion is a good long-term solution for anything that is stationery. But your last para mentions the most viable short-term solutions for what is stationery. Too bad Back to the Future wasn’t a set of documentaries regarding a mobile sustainable power source.

            1. Glen

              Funny, I’ve always felt that the ultimate goal with fusion is “to leave town in a big, big way”.

              Let me explain a bit. Our solar system is all “powered” by the sun, it is a “closed” system in that respect.

              Once you really get your act together and can manage to create your own “sun in a bottle”, you are free to leave the solar system.

              All realizing that of course, we would implement fusion at big power stations on earth first.

              But ultimately? Leave town. Ha! Maybe in a couple hundred years, and all assuming the idiots in charge don’t kill us all first. And if I had to place bets, I’m going to have to go with the idiots killing us.

              1. Synoia

                Fusion is not as “free” as you believe. It needs fuel – hydrogen, which is plentiful only close to a star’s gravity well.

                I believe fusion very good at a relatively safe distance of 93 million miles.

                There are , I believe, secondary radiation effects from fusion reactors on the containment apparatus, which becomes radioactive itself over some period of use.

          2. Bob


            “We know what works and is economically viable- wind, solar, hydro – )

            Now if that knowledge is joined with the excellent levelized cost analysis available from Lazard https://www.lazard.com/perspective/lcoe2020 it is clear that nuclear even thorium is not economically viable.

            Except some Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) are operated as cost plus operations that is the more expensive the generation the more profit can be made. So we see IOUs desperately holding on to uneconomical generating plants.

        2. Susan the other

          Whatever happened to the Air Force plan to experiment with a new power facility tapping (ever-so-carefully) into the Yellowstone caldera and then making the steam to turn into electricity? Everything needed is right there-a millennial supply of magma and plenty of water. Was that just crackpot?

          1. FluffytheObeseCat

            Geothermal heat is difficult to tap in a cost effective way. Each well into a resource, for instance, will cost a few million to drill to the depth where the geothermal fluid is sufficiently hot and still flows fast enough to generate a substantial amount of electricity. And that’s if you hit your target.

            Also even in big systems like Yellowstone, or the Geysers in California, it is easy to overdraw the system, dropping the temperature of the subsurface water or decreasing the steam cap to the point where you’ve damaged your resource for years. Or for good.

            Like with thorium reactors, the hype does not reckon with the technical difficulties in developing the resource for power.

      2. Phacops

        Any news on the critical issue with Thorium reactor design that it is susceptible to poisoning by daughter fission products? Sort of like conventional reactors dropping into a condition of Xenon poisoning.

    2. GramSci

      Unfortunately, as Alex intimates above, thorium is not the preferred material for making bombs. Nuclear also competes with fossil fuels, so the divide-and-conquer media strategy of our plutocratic rulers pits thorium against renewables.

      On the theme of “skilled labor”, I don’t think this is so essential to factory productivity profitability as “compliant labor” or (which is to say) “cheap labor”. Automation (given cheap fossil fuel energy) does require skilled labor reporting to “engineers”, and American technical education has deteriorated badly, but that’s a chicken-egg phenomenon. Without a “career path” prospective tech ed students (and their teachers) opt instead for MBAs and–what else is there?–gig jobs.

      Boiled frogs.

      1. Glen

        The reason thoruim was looked at was not necessarily because it could/could not be used for bombs, it was that the larger nuclear reactor designs being proposed on the early sixties for power generation were based on much smaller military reactors. The military designs were safe. The larger ones were not.

        Science writer Richard Martin states that nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg, who was director at Oak Ridge and primarily responsible for the new reactor, lost his job as director because he championed development of the safer thorium reactors.[7][8] Weinberg himself recalls this period:

        [Congressman] Chet Holifield was clearly exasperated with me, and he finally blurted out, “Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it may be time for you to leave nuclear energy.” I was speechless. But it was apparent to me that my style, my attitude, and my perception of the future were no longer in tune with the powers within the AEC.[9]

        More here:

        Thorium-based nuclear power

        As to increased automation and skilled workers. I’ve been doing automation in manufacturing for forty years. We quite literally cancel projects because we realize that the techs required to maintain the automation are more expensive than a slightly larger amount of less skilled workers that were currently doing the work with much less automation. The company has gotten cheap and will not pay enough to attract good techs.This also has to do with the low throughput on the product we work on (very large, very complex).

        I tend to agree with all of your comments otherwise, and note that the managers used to be engineers or come from the factory floor. We increasingly have “unskilled” managers that just show up equipped with an MBA and an attitude that everybody and everything can be replaced with a cheaper version somehow. We are now a company slowly bleeding out as highly skilled workers and engineers eventually retire/leave. The only thing we seem to have in never ending over abundance is MBAs.

        1. JCC

          +1 Glen.

          Seeing discussions like this reminds me too well of my experiences in the world of US machine tool world. Back in the mid-80’s I went to work for a premier US machine too manufacturer. I started as an electronics technician fresh out of the Army in a field service apperenticeship program, one year working on the floor helping to build machines, going through week-long internal classes on each machine, and traveling with experienced field service engineers learning the ropes on the ground, so to speak. The head of the Service Dept. was an engineer that started his career on the factory floor as a laborer and worked his way up until he became one the the Directors of the Company.

          Then the Company went public on NASDAQ and everything changed. Up until that point the company “owned” about 90% of the SuperPrecision market here in the U.S. and their collet arm became a world standard. Also at that time the official word was that Rochester, NY and Los Angeles, CA were trading the “most machine tools per capita” designation of any city in the world.

          Our Department was moved from Engineering oversight to the Sales Department, all overtime was stopped and we (Service Dept) were put on straight salary, no overtime, although overtime work was still expected. I saw the writing on the wall and bailed.

          Shortly after I left the CFO became CEO of the Company (he came in with an MBA and no machine tool experience whatsoever). Within 5 years after that the service function was fobbed off to the distributors and factory service was ended.

          The CEO has since sold off the company to a Private Equity company and management was moved to a city 300 miles away from the factory. I was offered the chance to move my pension fund at that time. I didn’t hesitate for a moment.

          My experience living inside this company and watching it closely ever since lead me to believe that it will take many, many years to bring mfg at this scale back to the U.S.

  7. Jessica

    As many of the commenters have pointed out in detail, deindustrialization in the US has extended deeply throughout the economy and society. Not only the factories and skilled personnel but even forms of capitalism capable of valuing them correctly have been eliminated.
    A transition back from an economy centered on financial games to one centered on the production of things and services of quality will require a deep reset of society. Our current elites have no interest in that kind of disruption and themselves also lack the skills and mindset required.
    On the other hand, the US economy and society as currently constituted cannot win any form of competition with China as long as the entire world, including in particular the US, is dependent on Chinese manufacturing. In theory, which is to say in the cells of MBAs’ spreadsheets, shifting manufacturing to Vietnam or Mexico or the like will do the trick, but in practice that will work as well as the US’s handling of the covid crisis.
    Therefore, unless US elites are willing to cede global leadership to China, the necessary reindustrialization transformation will require a much more fundamental reordering of US society. The Meiji Restoration in Japan or Maoism+Dengism in China are good examples. The reunification of Germany under Prussian domination in 1870 is perhaps a gentler example.
    This transformation might be led by something with some relationship to what we now call the left or the right but will come from something now considered too extreme to discuss in polite society. As long as the left remains loyal to the current professional class and to wokester classism, it will have no chance. This would suggest that by default, such a transformation would roughly be Christianism+Trumpism. If such a force rules with Gramscian hegemony (=they write the rules such that most folks are willing to play their game), they might succeed. If they rule more by brute force, then in the short-term, we get something dystopian, followed by failure.
    BTW, with the exception of some with medical or technical skills, reindustrialization will render most of the professional class obsolete.

    1. polecat

      So, not only do we have to kill all the Lawyers .. but do away with the MBA$ as well?
      Hummm .. We could liquidate the Quants too, and call it a trifecta.

  8. stefan

    I disagree with the naysayers. It is never too late.

    When things aren’t working right, something is out of balance. Rectify the balance, and you can tend to get things working better.

    Rectifying the balance will require adjustments to industrial policy, trade policy, education policy. In education for instance, we know that we need high skill people as well as low skill people, so we need to educate to properly employ the full spectrum and pay people so that they all prosper.

    One thing that seems missing is a spiritual element, a metaphysical core that everyone can share and believe in. When we look at the achievements in the past, the paintings on the Lascaux ceiling for example, what we are admiring is that metaphysical core.

    As the Chinese recognized years ago, in the Chung Yung for example (the doctrine of the mean) is the difficulty of maintaining balance even for a little while. This is why we must look inward and rectify ourselves. Balance, world balance, is the key.

  9. Edward Jones

    I have managed factories for 45 years and am now retired. Growing manufacturing in the US is not that hard. The problem is the entrenched paradigm of financing and organizational structure. There are companies here in Connecticut that ship metal commodities fasteners to China every week. They can do so because they are private companies owned by a family. They reinvest every year and improve every year. Wall Street would view their margins as horrible but they pay their bills, and their employees and keep going. Financial people view factories as pareto charts they can slice up and take apart. Private companies look at things differently. There is also great new technology to replace a lot of old commodity metal parts that are now made in China. Stamping press parts and die castings can now be made with metal printing machines. etc. It is all about the willingness to finance small startups that are private who can access new technology. It is pretty easy really.

    1. Susan the other

      Another big problem with finance is irresponsible exploitation to make more profit using externalized costs as part of the formula. And because of this we have missed and continue to miss the opportunity to incorporate recycling into the production process. At some point recycling will be an efficient part of manufacturing and it will serve to mitigate pollution and waste at the factory, where it belongs.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Some years ago I looked into jewelry as a possible exit from employment in the Military Industrial Complex. I remember spotting some well-designed and truly beautiful earring bullet clutches Dama Inc. manufactured. I looked for Dama earring clutches now and find Ballou/Dama [Ballou was another separate company back when I looked into jewelry] and the Ballou/Dama clutches appear in the WRCobb wholesale catalog. [Curious — Do you know whether the Dama earring clutches are still made in the US? They were made by specially designed machines — years ago. Are they still made in the US for world markets?]

      You describe metal printing machines taking the place of stamping press parts and die castings. I have great difficulty grasping how metal printing machines could compete with the stamping press components and assembly automation which I believe manufactures the Dama earring clutches.

      The home for Dama Inc. was Rhode Island. I’ve seen many mill and small manufacturing towns in Connecticut but they don’t appear especially prosperous. I last viewed manufacturing Connecticut in the 1980s but at that time manufacturing Connecticut appeared to hover one decade away from the fate of the old textile mills in Utica, NY, where old brick for NYC interior designers might be their only product.

      I agree that private companies look at things differently and that different way of looking at things is what the US needs … and has needed for forty years.

      If it is so pretty easy really … why doesn’t everyone do it? I suppose it might be how our banks and bankruptcy laws work?

  10. Mikel

    The return of more manufacturing is directly tied to the total capitulation of US workers on matters of rights, wages, and regulations.
    And when I say total, I mean total. Covid is turning those screws, but there are still too many around that resist.
    It’s why they left.
    Everyone keeps thinking neoliberals want to “negotiate” with them.

  11. steven

    Yet another byproduct of Hudson’s Super Imperialism. US politicians, bankers and financiers discovered they no longer needed to export wealth in exchange for the wealth beyond the country’s borders. They could export debt instead. Underlying the whole system is the good-as-gold credit rating of the US government (down a notch but still good enough). Then there is financial engineering and if push comes to shove the US military. The military is there to ensure the world continues to accept the US dollar being created in such abundance these days, e.g. Iraq, Libya.

    If Biden and the Democratic Party can’t break free of their masters on Wall Street, there isn’t a lot of hope.

  12. Mickey Hickey

    During my long life I have effortlessly ridden the post WW2 recovery. I was well educated in Ireland and have continued in England and Canada. I started in long distance radio communication and continued in all kinds of radio communication as well as marine and aviation radar systems. I have worked all over the world and have developed a good sense of what makes economies tick. Germany is an undebatable success story post WW2 being married to a German who has close relatives in development banking, academia (commerce), medicine, bakers, tool and die makers and others. I have had the workings of the German economy explained to me many times. To the German mindset the following are necessary to have a successful export economy. Skilled labour hence the well developed apprenticeship schemes, cheap housing (well built spacious apartments), cheap food (ultra refined), no minimum wage, unions setting wages across wide swathes of industry, unions capable of seeing the writing before it appears on the wall, affordable health care, cheap professional services and most important not allowing oligopolies and monopolies to develop. Germans have been paying close attention to all these factors up until 5 to 10 years ago, similarly the Swedes up until 25 years ago. Today China has climbed up the value added ladder to where it is competing in manufactured goods production machinery which is as good as any made in Germany. China was previously successful at exporting consumer goods worldwide and is now on the cusp of successfully exporting manufactured goods production machinery. This leaves Germany and Europe in an uncomfortable position. A few years ago it started to become fashionable to leave one’s apartment and buy a house which has led to inflation, good bye cheap housing. When East and West amalgamated, private equity (US and UK largely) bought up thousands of social housing units in East Berlin, private equity has done what one expects, no more affordable rental apartments in Berlin. As China ramped up exports German manufacturers were caught in a cost squeeze which resulted in such low pay to manufacturing workers that the government had to impose a minimum wage. The complaint now is that the minimum wage is so close to the median wage that it is distorting the labour market. Germany does not have a class system similar to the UK’s but there are occupational hierarchies that lead to expectations of what is a fair wage for each occupation and how that relates to the minimum wage which in Germany is associated with young unskilled labour. If one is now making 20% more than the minimum wage in a job requires a demanding 4 year apprenticeship one is not a happy camper.

  13. Jack Parsons

    In these ‘revitalize the economy’ discussions it seems like the services sector is a verboten topic. We exported thousands of phone-answering jobs that pay a decent wage in the hinterlands. If you can do it from India, you can do it from Kansas City.

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