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Conservatism Women are Fickle, You Say?

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Labor and Leisure

by Christopher Chantrill
September 03, 2007 at 2:45 pm

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THEY ARE having a problem in the old manufacturing city of Milwaukee these days, writes Patrick McIlheran of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Once studded with factories, it’s now lined with old, empty buildings along rail lines.”

Don’t worry though. There are are still plenty of manufacturing jobs in Milwaukee. They just don’t lie along the rail lines any more, but in newer buildings close by.

But there’s a problem.

Manufacturers have a work force dominated by baby boomers now starting to retire, and they find they cannot get enough replacements, even for jobs requiring no skills.

No, this is not an article about immigration. It is an article about labor efficiency, the famous labor efficiency of the industrial worker that first emerged in Britain in the Industrial Revolution and then assisted the rise of the United States to world power.

It wasn’t just capitalism and technology that powered the rise of the West. That’s what Gregory Clark argues in his book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. It was also the hard work and discipline of the average worker.

When British inventors revolutionized textile manufacturing with Arkwright’s water frame for cotton spinning and power looms for weaving, they didn’t just create a textile industry in Britain. Pretty soon they built a textile machine industry in Manchester, England, that exported textile machinery to the entire world. And they sent good Lancashire toolmakers, men like the capable William Rhodes in A. G. Macdonnell’s comic novel England, Their England, out with the machines to “teach those fellows how to use them.”

You would think that once the textile factories were set up in India and elsewhere that they would soon have put the British textile mills out of business. But they didn’t. For over a century the textile workers in India failed to compete with the British and American textile workers. The reason is simple. Textile factory managers in India found that they had to hire three or four times the number of workers that they needed in Britain or the US. Indian workers just did not submit to factory discipline like British workers. Writes Clark of Indian factory conditions in the early twentieth century:

A substantial fraction of workers were [sic] absent on any given day, and those at work were often able to come and go from the mill at their pleasure to eat or to smoke.

The fictional William Rhodes had similar experiences.

I’d spend a week teaching a fellow, and then, just as I’d got him in good shape, he’d remember that his cousin’s aunt had got scarlet fever or something, and off he’d go and I’d have to start again with a new fellow.

The societies that led the economic growth of the last two centuries had become by the time of the Industrial Revolution “increasingly middle class in their orientation,” writes Clark.

Thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent, and leisure loving.

Since Clark diplomatically avoided mentioning in A Farewell to Alms Max Weber and his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published a century ago, you can say that he earned his favorable review in The New York Times with his respect for tender liberal sensibilities.

But now it seems that people everywhere are learning the ways of the Protestant Ethic, and it probably doesn’t hurt that millions of them are actually becoming Protestants, in South America, in Africa, in China, and in South Korea.

Now listen to the experience of Lance Rakow, general manager of an INX International plant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that makes specialty inks. He hires production workers at $13.50 an hour. Felons? Not a problem.

If only he could get people to show up, or at least call when they don’t. Last autumn and winter, he says, he lost nine guys — one star opted for Bible college, and the rest were fired, mainly because they accumulated too many unexcused, unexplained absences.

Is it possible that the good old North American working stiff is losing his appetite for work and his willingness to submit to factory discipline?

It may be significant that the nation that leads the world in number of hours worked per year is South Korea. The average South Korean, according to the OECD, works 2,390 hours per year, compared to 1,777 in the United States.

Those pesky Mexican immigrants are also hard workers. Mexican workers are ranked #3 in the world at 1,980 hours per year, right after South Korea and Poland.

Maybe it’s just as well that lots of hard-working Koreans and Mexicans are coming to the United States.

Otherwise we might have to rename Labor Day as Leisure Day.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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