Daniel W. Drezner

Santorum on manufacturing: what an idiot

Rick Santorum made some headlines over the weekend about calling President Obama a "snob" because POTUS ostensibly wants all Americans to get a four-year college degree.  Here’s the clip:  Now, most commentators are focusing on the "snob" comment or the broader thrust of Santorum’s jeremiad against higher education or whether this will play in Michigan.  I want to ...

Rick Santorum made some headlines over the weekend about calling President Obama a "snob" because POTUS ostensibly wants all Americans to get a four-year college degree.  Here’s the clip: 

Now, most commentators are focusing on the "snob" comment or the broader thrust of Santorum’s jeremiad against higher education or whether this will play in Michigan.  I want to focus on the idiocy contained in the first part of Santorum’s comment.  This is important, because ostensibly one of Santorum’s policy strengths is that he knows and likes manufacturing

In the opening parts of the clip, Santorum says as follows:

I know what it means to have those manufacturing jobs at that entry level to get you in there, and it gives you the opportunity to accumulate more skills over time and rise, so you can provide a better standard of living for your family.  And those opportunities are for working men and women — not all folks are gifted in the same way.  Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. 

What’s disturbing about this bit is that Santorum’s ideas about manufacturing employment are so outdated.  For an example, take a good, long look at Adam Davisdon’s excellent essay in The Atlantic about how American manufacturing looks today.  He zeroes in on two workers — Maddie and Luke. Maddie is exactly the kind of worker Santorum wants to talk about — a low-level worker with aspirations to move up. But read this part: 

The last time I visited the factory, Maddie was training a new worker. Teaching her to operate the machine took just under two minutes. Maddie then spent about 25 minutes showing her the various instructions Standard engineers have prepared to make certain that the machine operator doesn’t need to use her own judgment. “Always check your sheets,” Maddie says.

By the end of the day, the trainee will be as proficient at the laser welder as Maddie. This is why all assembly workers have roughly the same pay grade—known as Level 1—and are seen by management as largely interchangeable and fairly easy to replace. A Level 1 worker makes about $13 an hour, which is a little more than the average wage in this part of the country. The next category, Level 2, is defined by Standard as a worker who knows the machines well enough to set up the equipment and adjust it when things go wrong. The skilled machinists like Luke are Level 2s, and make about 50 percent more than Maddie does.

For Maddie to achieve her dreams—to own her own home, to take her family on vacation to the coast, to have enough saved up so her children can go to college—she’d need to become one of the advanced Level 2s. A decade ago, a smart, hard-working Level 1 might have persuaded management to provide on-the-job training in Level-2 skills. But these days, the gap between a Level 1 and a 2 is so wide that it doesn’t make financial sense for Standard to spend years training someone who might not be able to pick up the skills or might take that training to a competing factory.

It feels cruel to point out all the Level-2 concepts Maddie doesn’t know, although Maddie is quite open about these shortcomings. She doesn’t know the computer-programming language that runs the machines she operates; in fact, she was surprised to learn they are run by a specialized computer language. She doesn’t know trigonometry or calculus, and she’s never studied the properties of cutting tools or metals. She doesn’t know how to maintain a tolerance of 0.25 microns, or what tolerance means in this context, or what a micron is (emphasis added).

It should be noted that Luke didn’t get a four-year college degree either — he went to community college.  But that’s actually consistent with what Obama has been saying on this issue.  I’m not sure it’s consistent with Santorum’s worldview.  Indeed, his notion that career advancement in manufacturing is possible simply through the sweat and skill of a person’s brow is badly, badly antiquated.  Which is something he would know if he, um… studied the issue a bit more. 

UPDATE:  I see Santorum’s run of not-understanding-a-lot-of-economics continues

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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