For more than three decades, and at an accelerating pace since 2001, American manufacturing has been in decline. Conventional wisdom attributes the decline to productivity gains, a shift to a service-based economy, and competition from low-wage countries. MIT’s Suzanne Berger disagrees. A professor of political science, Berger is co-chair of MIT’s project on Production in the Innovation Economy (PIE), and author of Making in America (2013), which presents the results of PIE’s research. She thinks that the growing dominance of finance in the American economy has played an important role in the story about manufacturing. Investor pressure to turn fast profits has forced companies to focus on core competencies. As a result, they have stopped providing the kinds of public goods—R&D, worker training—that large, vertically integrated companies such as IBM, AT&T, and DuPont used to supply. While firms may be profitable today, the larger ecology needed for successful manufacturing has withered.
Berger’s essay opens up a wide-ranging debate: on why manufacturing has declined, as well as the importance of innovation, the government’s role in the economy, and the impact of corporate changes and rising inequality on American workers. Some respondents have faith in market solutions, some call for government intervention and activism to foster innovation, while others think we should pay at least as much attention to workers as we do to innovation.
These questions about work, inequality, and innovation go to the heart of what makes for a good society. Elsewhere in this issue, Sarah Hill investigates that ideal directly. She writes about a self-proclaimed utopia, the Spanish village of Marinaleda, which boasts deliberative politics, cooperative farming, and housing for anyone who wants it. Marinaleda residents seem to have found social arrangements that work for them. But, as attractive as these arrangements are for Marinaleda’s locals, we must not use their experience as a model. “Rather,” Hill writes, “the best we can hope for is the best possible community for particular people in particular places at particular times.”
Also in this issue: we are pleased to introduce a new feature. While Pam Karlan is on leave at the Department of Justice, we have replaced Karlan’s Court with Wonders, a column on science. In the first installment, “Letting Go of Normal,” Anne Fausto-Sterling criticizes the misguided search for norms in biological development.
Finally, a remarkable group of poets offer their reflections on our collective exposure in an age of mass surveillance. Read poems by John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Robert Pinsky, and others in this issue.