Suzanne Fields

The prospect of hanging, as Samuel Johnson observed, "concentrates the mind wonderfully." We're counting on that kind of concentration to keep us from falling off the infamous fiscal cliff, which doesn't sound like fun. But while the Republicans and Democrats argue about whom to blame if they let the worst happen, we might look outside the box to find something beyond partisan gloom and economic doom.

We've given up our role as the manufacturing colossus, which blinds us to the reality that the times, they are a-changing -- again.

"For decades," writes James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine, "every trend in manufacturing favored the developing world and worked against the United States. But new tools that greatly speed up development from idea to finished product encourage startup companies to locate here, not in Asia."

He found his epiphany when he visited a factory in China that makes computers, smartphones and games for brands like Apple, Dell and Nintendo, enabling the American brands to exploit cheap labor in China to keep prices low in America.

We've known for a long time that conditions are grim and often intolerable in Asian sweatshops, but we've turned a blind eye. We got the goods at the right price, and everyone was happy. Or so we wanted to think. We rationalized that the workers who made these wondrous machines were happy to have a job, and if some factories put landing nets under dormitory windows to catch workers making suicide jumps, well, we won't think about that.

We've ignored or overlooked how Chinese worker attitudes are changing, as well, making their compliance with economic necessity more complicated, as invention and innovation here raised our ability to compete.

Even in Communist China it was inevitable that workers would want better lives for themselves. Many are the second generation off the farm, and have no desire to till the land of their fathers. Many never did.

Instead, they see their future in an urban world and want a piece of the prosperity pie they helped bake.

One of the more telling details concerns Chinese women. Women, with diligence, smaller hands and more careful attention to detail, are usually better at high-precision work. They learn new techniques more quickly than men. Many have climbed to high positions at the factory. As a result, they're leaving for better jobs and easier conditions.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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