America’s Mittelstand

Advanced manufacturing can thrive, as Grand Rapids shows

New-style production line

MIDWESTERNERS STILL like to make stuff. Manufacturing may have slid, but they do more of it than other Americans. In Indiana, it makes up 29% of gross state product (and employs 17% of workers). In Michigan it is 19% (and 14% of jobs). In each of the “core” eight states, it is above the national average of 12% of GDP. Companies plug into supply chains for car, aviation and retail industries, or for medical equipment, machine parts and the energy industry. Older-style work, such as furniture-making, persists.

Yet the mass employment of low-skilled workers has largely gone. That hurts those diverted to low-paid work in services. Tony Flora, a union leader in South Bend, asks “How can you provide a middle-class way of life if the jobs are serving omelettes in a restaurant?” Harvard’s Edward Glaeser observes that, as recently as 2000, manufacturing was the largest employer nationally of lower-skilled workers. Now it is one of the smallest.

Paul Krugman, an economist, suggests that rising economic nationalism, confrontation with China and pandemic-induced anxiety over supply chains could nudge some manufacturing back…