“It turns out that the 1970 assembly line, with union shop stewards always poised to shut it down, was not the highest stage of human economic development.”

August 16th, 2011

In what passed for a New York City Public High School AP Political Science Class in 2001, I watched a Michael Moore propaganda piece, Roger and Me, to learn about economics. I was taught that Michigan in the 1960s and 1970s was the pinnacle of industrial labor development, and that we should strive for that period. The departure from that golden era, largely driven by the greedy auto companies outsourcing jobs and shutting down plants, was a travesty, and the reason for Michigan’s failure (this movie was made in the 1980s; it’s gotten much worse since). Maybe Michael Moore wasn’t right? Maybe the model that Moore lauded in that film was a powder keg waiting to explode. Maybe my political science class was a failure?

Michael Barone is on point in the WSJ:

The Michigan model was based on the Progressive/New Deal assumption that, after the transition from farm to factory, the best way to secure growth was through big companies and big labor unions.

The Big Three auto companies, economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, could create endless demand for their products through manipulative advertising and planned obsolescence. The United Auto Workers would ensure that productivity gains would be shared by workers and the assembly line would never be speeded up. In those days, 40% of Michigan voters lived in union (mostly UAW) households, the base vote of a liberal Democratic Party that pushed for ever larger governments at the local, state and federal levels. You found similar alignments in most Midwestern states.

Liberals assumed the Michigan model was the wave of the future, and that in time—once someone built big factories and unions organized them—backward states like Texas would catch up. Texas liberal writers Ronnie Dugger and Molly Ivins kept looking for the liberal coalition of blacks, poor whites and Latinos that political scientist V.O. Key predicted in his 1940s classic “Southern Politics.” . . .

History hasn’t worked out that way. In 1970, Michigan had nine million people. In 2010, it had 10 million. In 1970, Texas had 11 million people. In 2010, it had 25 million. In 1970, Detroit was the nation’s fifth-largest metro area. Today, metro Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex are both pressing the San Francisco Bay area for the No. 4 spot, and Detroit is far behind.

Adversarial unionism is one reason the Midwest slumped. It turns out that the 1970 assembly line, with union shop stewards always poised to shut it down, was not the highest stage of human economic development. When you make labor more expensive, you create incentives to invent new machines and create new jobs elsewhere. Foreign auto manufacturers built plants in a South recently freed from state-imposed racial segregation. With no adversarial unions, management and labor could collaborate and achieve quality levels the Big Three took decades to match.