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There are different interpretations of what de-industrialization is. Many associate de-industrialization of the United States with the mass closing of automaker plants in the now so-called "Rust Belt" between 1980 and 1990. The US Federal Reserve raised interest and exchange rates 1979 to 1984, which automatically caused import prices to fall. Japan was rapidly expanding productivity at that time, and this killed the US machine tool sector. A second wave of de-industrialization occurred in the US between 2001 and 2009, culminating in the automaker bailout, from which the US did not recover. Some point out that the percentage loss of industrial jobs 2001-2009 exceeded the industrial job loss of the Great Depression. Some attribute the decline of industrial investment to the diversion of business profits to stock buybacks.
Others point to investment in patents rather than in new capital equipment. The opioid epidemic took off during this time period of 21st de-industrialization. At a more fundamental level, Cairncross and Lever offer four possible definitions of deindustrialization:
A shift from manufacturing to the service sectors, so that manufacturing has a lower share of total employment. Such a shift may occur even if manufacturing employment is growing in absolute terms
That manufactured goods comprise a declining share of external trade, so that there is a progressive failure to achieve a sufficient surplus of exports over imports to maintain an economy in external balance
A continuing state of balance of trade deficit (as described in the third definition above) that accumulates to the extent that a country or region is unable to pay for necessary imports to sustain further production of goods, thus initiating a further downward spiral of economic decline.
Theories that predict or explain de-industrialization have a long intellectual lineage. Rowthorn argues that Marx's theory of declining (industrial) profit may be regarded as one of the earliest. This theory argues that technological innovation enables more efficient means of production, resulting in increased physical productivity, i.e., a greater output of use value per unit of capital invested. In parallel, however, technological innovations replace people with machinery, and the organic composition of capital increases. Assuming only labor can produce new additional value, this greater physical output embodies a smaller value and surplus value. The average rate of industrial profit therefore declines in the longer term.
Rowthorn and Wells distinguish between de-industrialization explanations that see it as a positive process of, for example, maturity of the economy, and those that associate de-industrialization with negative factors like bad economic performance. They suggest de-industrialization may be both an effect and a cause of poor economic performance.
Pitelis and Antonakis suggest that, to the extent that manufacturing is characterized by higher productivity, this leads, all other things being equal, to a reduction in relative cost of manufacturing products, thus a reduction in the relative share of manufacturing (provided manufacturing and services are characterized by relatively inelastic demand). Moreover, to the extent that manufacturing firms downsize through, e.g., outsourcing, contracting out, etc., this reduces manufacturing share without negatively influencing the economy. Indeed, it potentially has positive effects, provided such actions increase firm productivity and performance.
George Reisman identified inflation as a contributor to de-industrialization. In his analysis, the process of fiat money inflation distorts the economic calculations necessary to operate capital-intensive manufacturing enterprises, and makes the investments necessary for sustaining the operations of such enterprises unprofitable.
Institutional arrangements have also contributed to de-industrialization such as economic restructuring. With breakthroughs in transportation, communication and information technology, a globalized economy that encouraged foreign direct investment, capital mobility and labor migration, and new economic theory's emphasis on specialized factor endowments, manufacturing moved to lower-cost sites and in its place service sector and financial agglomerations concentrated in urban areas.
The term de-industrialization crisis has been used to describe the decline of labor-intensive industry in a number of countries and the flight of jobs away from cities. One example is labor-intensive manufacturing. After free-trade agreements were instituted with less developed nations in the 1980s and 1990s, labor-intensive manufacturers relocated production facilities to third world countries with much lower wages and lower standards. In addition, technological inventions that required less manual labor, such as industrial robots, eliminated many manufacturing jobs.
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