So I'm reading this story over on CNN about a new corporate structure called an L3C that basically allows charities and foundations to plow their tax free cash into dairy farms in New England because the dairy farmers serve a great social purpose and I am asking myself, what's so great about pulling on the mammary glands of a cow that makes it such a high social cause? How come tax free cash can't get dumped into injection molding? How come the cause of creating things out of resins and nylon – and creating jobs and making products people use for a whole lot of worthwhile purposes - isn't as important as making stuff out of the lactation of a cow?
A guy I met in Australia a few months back who has spent his lifetime in manufacturing, mostly in engineering products and devices that bring electric power to millions of people, told me that Down Under, when he and his wife attend social events as soon as people find out he works in manufacturing, they change the subject. They don't even ask whether he is the janitor or the CEO. Knowing that he works in manufacturing triggers either scorn or pity – but either way his career is not perceived to be something worth discussing any further. A career in mining, however, is right up there in Aussie culture. Now I have great respect for mining and miners, but how does digging big holes in the dirt rank as more glamorous than making the devices that bring energy to common people throughout the world?
We have government subsidies for just about every aspect of agriculture. Mexico was unprepared for the USA when they signed NAFTA almost twenty years ago. The average Mexican farmer stands no chance competing against an American farmer who can sell at whatever it takes to move his crops, and count on Uncle Sam to make up the difference. I am four square in favor of farmers, too, but how did our culture arrive at the point at which sticking seeds in the ground, chopping weeds and picking corn is honorable work, while factory work is something that needs no protection and is better off shipped out to the most desperate people on the planet?
Grind up the bean from a coffee tree and mix it with a little hot water, and you are granted the title of "barista". Master a CNC vertical machining center to make precise parts for the most advanced aerospace applications in the world and you are called a 'factory worker'. What's up with that? Even worse, more and more often you are called 'unemployed'.
We have TV shows idolizing the guys who pull crustaceans out of the Bering Sea, but the manufacturing shows are about machines – not the people who run them. Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp bring in millions of bucks for farmers with their annual Farm Aid – worthwhile I suppose – but I can't find Factory Aid anywhere on my cable lineup.
Somehow, manufacturing work has become accepted as not only unnecessary, but work not worthy of respect, and I can find no rhyme or reason for it. It is not as though we do not respect people who work with their hands and their backs – farmers, coffee grinders, miners, dairy work and crab fishermen are all seen as vital and even cool – and they are, but no more so than factory workers.
How did farmers manage to dodge the globalization/free trade/service economy philosophy that has devastated American manufacturing and become a protected industry – not just legally but socially? The family farm is hallowed ground, but the family machine shop gets tossed on the scrap heap of globalization without a second thought? By what curious logic did the average Australian come to the conclusion that digging a hole in the ground and pulling out chunks of ore is God's work, while turning the ore into the products Australians vitally need is best done in China? Who decided we need a Department of Agriculture – but no Department of Manufacturing?
Anybody out there got the answers? I sure don't.