UpFront: The Examined Life
By Brian J. Hogan
I understand that the Greek philosopher Socrates once said the unexamined life is not worth living. My recollection is that he felt the need to delve into his own motives and his own understanding of the world, with the objective of deriving from that process the ideas and positions he would stand upon.
An encounter or two with some folks who are possessed of powerful convictions brought Socrates to my mind. Did you know that everything we manufacture is going to be made in China? And every job that's worth having is heading to China, India, Mexico, or some other place beyond the borders of the US? And there's nothing to be done; nothing! In fact, the US is finished as a nation, and the American dream is dead!
Granted, specific areas of the US, (for example, southeast Michigan, where I live) face serious issues. But, as I've pointed out before in this space, I travel a good deal. While doing so, I meet many people with full order books who are worried about delivering product on time. I see companies struggling to hire capable employees. And, overall, I don't see much reason for nationwide gloom about US manufacturing.
But when I say that, the folks who believe midnight has fallen react as though I were the proverbial skunk in the barroom. When I ask a few questions, it's pretty clear the believers don't actually know much about manufacturing. They've typically heard from the general media about Toyota's worldwide growth, and they also understand that the three big Detroit automakers are troubled. As to specific issues, any discussion quickly tumbles into generalities and clichés.
The attitude toward my dissent from the consensus viewpoint hardens, however, as the conversation goes on. It can develop a genuinely nasty edge, and I've wondered why.
I don't pretend to know all there is to know about the US economy, but I do know that manufacturing is experiencing a nice recovery, and most manufacturing companies are doing pretty well. Press releases on new contracts, improved profits, etc. keep flowing into my office, and the people I visit all tell a consistent story about a good economy. It seems to me that those who believe in midnight are actually quite ignorant, and that ignorance hardens their views. They've not examined their ideas and assumptions, and bitterly resent any suggestion that doing so might be appropriate.
Perhaps no position is more strongly held, or more fiercely defended, than one erected upon a foundation of ignorance. Certain people gallop ahead like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, confident that their behavior is evidence of profound wisdom.
It's a funny old world.
This article was first published in the August 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.