Missing the Second Industrial Revolution
Balk, Alfred, Nieman Reports
It is an apparently conventional dispatch leading page one of The New York Times, yet to a critical eye it is an archetype of a core flaw in American media economic coverage.
"In a stunningly grim portrayal of the midsummer economy," the article by Robert D. Hershey Jr. begins, "government figures showed today that American business and industry lost 167,000 jobs in August as factory employment skidded to its lowest level since April 1983." The report, last Sept. 5, goes on to note that "manufacturing was particularly weak ... with losses appearing for 16 of the 20 industries specified." What's wrong? Hint: See a Washington Post story by Barbara Vobejda Aug. 18):
"To some, the numbers carry ominous signals--a dangerous slide in the, American industrial base--To others, they merely reflect what we should already know: that the economy is now undergoing a fundamental restructuring." She added that a government expert "attributed the decline in manufacturing jobs in part to significant gains in productivity, which have enabled employers to produce more goods with fewer workers."
The difference? The thrust in Hershey's long Times story appears to be a recession-causing lag in American manufacturing performance, the most severe since 1983. Vobejda, on the other hand, provides a crucial perspective on what the numbers really signify: another step in a painful, sometimes debilitating national transition from the smokestack era.
Lance Morrow, in Time on March 29, put it this way:
"In the terrible highland clearances of the 18th Century, thousands of Scots were driven from their farms so that landlords might turn the fields over to the mass grazing of sheep, a more efficient and profitable enterprise. The wool business prospered .... It was the end of a way of life .... A transformation that merciless and profound is occurring in the American workplace."
American media have periodically noted that transformation, in individual features, editorials, book reviews and TV mini-documentaries. The problem is that context is not included regularly in daily reporting. Day-to-day coverage tends to be a business-as-usual recording of layoffs, corporate downsizing and wage and job-opportunity shifts as if these were recession phenomena little related to something greater. This clouds comprehension of an economic upheaval that is far more than a recession--it is a revolution.
Harvard's Daniel Bell refers to it as "The Third Transition," an "Information Age" or "Post-Industrial Society." Alvin Toffler, in a 1980's bestseller, called it "The Third Wave," comparable to two previous historical watersheds--the onsets of organized agriculture and factory industry. Others sum it up simply as "the Second industrial Revolution."
In research for a book I found the revolution to be three-tiered:
1. Reindustrialization around high
automation and the births of
new industries and sciences).
2. Internationalization of economics,
politics, science, technology
3. The ascent of a scientific, technocratic
Add to these a current global economic slump afflicting even dynamic Japan, and a delayed partial U.S. military demobilization from a half-century's wartime footing, and it should be apparent that our problems do not lend themselves to ordinary beat reporting. Factor in definitions of recovery pegged to the record immediate postwar global GNP growth and unprecedented U.S. prosperity, and reality is further clouded.
In the two postwar reconstruction decades ending in 1973, global manufacturing output tripled, and in 1960-80 gross world product growth averaged double the historical norm--some 5 percent annually. Our own growth set records, doubling our median family income in a quarter-century.
That era, an atypical economic Camelot, ended with OPEC's 1970's oil shocks. …