You’ll recall that the Wall Street Journal columnist wrote the other day smacking Rick Santorum about the special tax-code treatment he wants to give to manufacturing. I, for one, cannot imagine why anybody would think that America would be better off keeping manufacturing jobs here instead of shipping them overseas. Can’t our working class just get a job at Wal-mart selling stuff their parents and grandparents used to manufacture here, but that’s now being made by Chinese people? What’s wrong with that? (I’m being sarcastic, just so you know).

Adam Davidson, writing in the Atlantic, has a big piece about manufacturing as seen through the eyes of South Carolina factory workers. Excerpt:

Yet the success of American manufacturers has come at a cost. Factories have replaced millions of workers with machines. Even if you know the rough outline of this story, looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data is still shocking. A historical chart of U.S. manufacturing employment shows steady growth from the end of the Depression until the early 1980s, when the number of jobs drops a little. Then things stay largely flat until about 1999. After that, the numbers simply collapse. In the 10 years ending in 2009, factories shed workers so fast that they erased almost all the gains of the previous 70 years; roughly one out of every three manufacturing jobs—about 6 million in total—disappeared. About as many people work in manufacturing now as did at the end of the Depression, even though the American population is more than twice as large today.

I came here to find answers to questions that arise from the data. How, exactly, have some American manufacturers continued to survive, and even thrive, as global competition has intensified? What, if anything, should be done to halt the collapse of manufacturing employment? And what does the disappearance of factory work mean for the rest of us?

Across America, many factory floors look radically different than they did 20 years ago: far fewer people, far more high-tech machines, and entirely different demands on the workers who remain. The still-unfolding story of manufacturing’s transformation is, in many respects, that of our economic age. It’s a story with much good news for the nation as a whole. But it’s also one that is decidedly less inclusive than the story of the 20th century, with a less certain role for people like Maddie Parlier, who struggle or are unlucky early in life.

This is not only a story about free trade, but also about economic modernization — specifically, how technology and mechanization has done away with jobs that used to be performed by people. In fact, one thing I love about Davidson’s piece is the way it brings out how complicated this whole picture is, and how much it defies easy and satisfying (from a partisan perspective) categorization. For example:

To keep the business of the giant auto-parts retailers, Standard has to constantly lower costs while maintaining quality. High quality is impossible without good raw materials, which Standard has to buy at market rates. The massive global conglomerates, like Bosch, might be able to command discounts when buying, say, specially formulated metals; but Standard has to pay the prevailing price, and for years now, that price has been rising. That places an even higher imperative on reducing the cost of labor. If Standard paid unskilled workers like Maddie more or hired more of them, Larry says, the company would have to charge its customers more or accept lower profits. Either way, Standard would collapse fairly soon. (Industrial profit margins are notoriously thin to begin with—typically in the low single digits—and reduced profits or losses would drive down Standard’s stock price, making it a likely target for predatory acquisition.)

Here is the cultural part of this complicated situation:

I went to South Carolina, and spent so much time with Maddie, precisely because these issues are so large and so overwhelming. I wanted to see how this shift affected regular people’s lives. I didn’t come away with a handy list of policies that would solve all the problems of unskilled workers, but I did note some principles that seem important to improving their situation.

It’s hard to imagine what set of circumstances would reverse recent trends and bring large numbers of jobs for unskilled laborers back to the U.S. Our efforts might be more fruitfully focused on getting Maddie the education she needs for a better shot at a decent living in the years to come. Subsidized job-training programs tend to be fairly popular among Democrats and Republicans, and certainly benefit some people. But these programs suffer from all the ills in our education system; opportunities go, disproportionately, to those who already have initiative, intelligence, and—not least—family support.

I never heard Maddie blame others for her situation; she talked, often, about the bad choices she made as a teenager and how those have limited her future. I came to realize, though, that Maddie represents a large population: people who, for whatever reason, are not going to be able to leave the workforce long enough to get the skills they need.

To read Davidson’s story, and to see how extremely little margin for error small manufacturers have — I mean, they have to be extremely vigilant on their prices, or they could see their businesses evaporate — is to see also how little margin for error ordinary workers have. You get the sense that ours is not a country where it’s as easy as it once was to find a second chance, especially if you have a stronger back than you do mind. You can, or you should, see why having a strong, supportive family structure is not just morally desirable, but economically necessary. This fact is something that Rick Santorum, of all the candidates, has an inkling of.