Fetish for making things ignores real work


You can buy a business suit by George at Asda for £29. It will be practical; ready to wear, polyester blended, machine washable. You can pay 10 times as much at Marks and Spencer for Italian tailoring and good quality wool fabric. And you can pay 10 times as much again for a bespoke suit from Savile Row. You need to decide whether you want a stylish suit, or just a suit; a customised suit, or just a good-looking suit. You need not pay much for a suit but you will pay a lot for style, and a lot more for personalisation.

You – or your government or insurer – will pay a pound or two for a pill and many times that for a specialist drug, such as a modern cancer treatment. Generally, the ingredients will cost a few pence at most. You might pay up to £10m for an aircraft engine, which would fit in a box the size of a small sofa. You are not paying for the materials.

The rear cover of the iPhone tells you it is designed in California and assembled in China. The phone sells, in the absence of carrier subsidy, for about $700. Purchased components – clever pieces of design such as the tiny flash drive and the small but high-performing camera – may account for as much as $200 of this. The largest supplier of parts is Samsung,Apple’s principal rival in the smartphone market. “Assembled in China” costs about $20. The balance represents the return to “designed in California”, which is why Apple is such a profitable company.

Manufacturing fetishism – the idea that manufacturing is the central economic activity and everything else is somehow subordinate – is deeply ingrained in human thinking. The perception that only tangible objects represent real wealth and only physical labour real work was probably formed in the days when economic activity was the constant search for food, fuel and shelter.

A particularly silly expression of manufacturing fetishism can be heard from the many business people who equate wealth creation with private sector production. They applaud the activities of making the pills you pop and processing the popcorn you eat in the interval. The doctors who prescribe the pills, the scientists who establish that the pills work, the actors who draw you to the performance and the writers whose works they bring to life; these are all somehow parasitic on the pill grinders and corn poppers.

When you look at the value chain of manufactured goods we consume today, you quickly appreciate how small a proportion of the value of output is represented by the processes of manufacturing and assembly. Most of what you pay reflects the style of the suit, the design of the iPhone, the precision of the assembly of the aircraft engine, the painstaking pharmaceutical research, the quality assurance that tells you products really are what they claim to be.

Physical labour incorporated in manufactured goods is a cheap commodity in a globalised world. But the skills and capabilities that turn that labour into products of extraordinary complexity and sophistication are not. The iPhone is a manufactured product, but its value to the user is as a crystallisation of services.

Many of those who talk about the central economic importance of manufactured goods do so from an understandable concern for employment and the trade balance. Where will the jobs come from in a service-based economy, manufacturing fetishists ask? From doing here the things that cannot be done better elsewhere, either because of the particularity of the skills they require, or because these activities can only be performed close to home. Manufacturing was once a principal source of low-skilled employment but this can no longer be true in advanced economies.

Most unskilled jobs in developed countries are necessarily in personal services. Workers in China can assemble your iPhone but they cannot serve you lunch, collect your refuse or bathe your grandmother. Anyone who thinks these are not “real jobs” does not understand the labour they involve. There is a subtle gender issue here: work that has historically mostly been undertaken by women at home – like care and cooking – struggles to be regarded as “real work”.

Where will exports come from, they ask? From exporting “designed in California” or “tailored in Savile Row”. Ask Apple, or your tailor, how they derive their earnings.

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