Hospitals vs. Factories

Hospitals vs. Factories

Hospitals vs. Factories

Science, technology, and life.
April 15 2008 2:32 PM

Hospitals vs. Factories

Last week I promised to start using this blog to highlight and explain the day's top stories. Unfortunately, scanning wires, papers, magazines, journals, and Web sites for the best stories (make sure to bookmark the Human Nature home page so you'll get the list every day) has taken so much time that I haven't been able to make good on my promise. Sorting out how long these tasks take, and which of them I should spend my time on, will take at least a few weeks. Anyway, I've cleared some time this afternoon to talk about today's stories , so let's get to it.

One item worth noting is today's Wall Street Journal article [subscription required] on hospitals replacing factories . Reporter Conor Dougherty lays out the data:

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


Demand for health care tends to stay strong during recessions. Cash-strapped consumers are more likely to cut back on new appliances or cars than emergency-room visits. Indeed, while the number of manufacturing jobs nationwide fell by 48,000 in March and by 310,000 over the past 12 months, health-care employment rose by 23,000 last month and is up 363,000 jobs on the year ... Growth in health care is fueling local economies across the country, as medical facilities replace factories. In Duluth, Minn., 20% of the jobs are in health care, compared with 14% a decade ago. In the Canton, Ohio, area, which lost the maker of Hoover vacuum cleaners and dozens of other manufacturers, the health-care industry is expanding rapidly. A similar story is unfolding in Anderson, Ind., once a major producer of cars and car parts.

I haven't researched this topic enough to analyze all the factors. But one theme is already intriguing: An economy based on constructing and repairing objects is giving way to an economy based on repairing and maintaining the human body. Faced with recession, consumers are deciding that widgets are expendable, but people aren't.

Actually, that's not quite right. We haven't decided that the health of ­all people is so important. The manufacturing that used to happen here is migrating to the developing world. Likewise, its replacement by hospitals is happening here, not there. Yes, American and European medicine are often being outsourced to poorer countries. But the patients benefiting from this overseas treatment are still American and European. Just ask all those transplant tourists .

My bet is that the trends reflected in this article will dominate the economy of the next century. The biotechnology of human health will increasingly become the technology most highly valued by the measure that counts most: economic demand. To put it in moral terms: The most valued objects of maintenance and repair will be subjects.

That's the good news. The bad news is that because the mechanism behind this process is economic, and because wealth is unevenly distributed, billions of people will benefit little or not at all. Dougherty shows us, through interviews and stories, how easily supply and demand can shuffle workers not only from manufacturing to health care, but vice versa when nursing wages don't add up. That's why, in much of the world, the economy will continue to value objects more than subjects, no matter what morality says.