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Promise of American Production

Irving Howe

The Promise of American Production – III

(30 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 39, 30 September 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the previous articles of this series we have discussed some of the developments in American productivity in past years, especially those which resulted from the needs of the war. In this article we will discuss the potentialities for still further expansion of America’s productive capacity in the future. A few of the more startling developments on the horizon are in the following five fields:

Electric Power

America is the most highly electrified country in the world. For the past forty years the rate of increase in the use of electric power in this . country has been the incredible figure of 15 per cent a year. Fortune magazine writes in its February, 1946, issue that:

“The year the war broke out in Europe, per capita consumption of power in the U.S. was 50 per cent higher than that of Great Britain, more than twice that of Germany, more than ten times that of Japan, and 150 times that of China.”

Yet a tremendous expansion took place during the war. In terms of kilowatt hours, the U.S. in 1944 was using 280 billion as against 160 billion in 1939.

Considerable expansion of power consumption is expected in the coming few years. American industry is estimated by the Department of Commerce to be less than 50 per cent electrified. If costs of power were sharply cut, a major transformation in American industry would be possible. Mass production techniques would spread to an extent even greater than at present. The February issue of Fortune offers the following estimates of possible productivity expansion as a result of increased electrification:

“A mechanized coal mine using 10 kwh per ton as compared with the 5 kwh per ton average for the coal industry, reduced the cost of coal mining by approximately 10 per cent. When the electric motor on a newspaper press was increased from 75 to 175 hp, the printing was speeded up 66 per cent. An addition of 400 hp to an electric shovel increased the production 75 per cent.”


The utilization of new knowledge in the field of chemistry has resulted in tremendous increases in American productivity. Many previously discarded by-products are now utilized. But most dramatic of all the advantages offered by chemistry is in synthetic products, of which the present most important is rubber.

By 1914, under pressure of war needs, the synthetic rubber industry was producing more rubber than, the U.S. had ever imported from the Ear East. The synthetic rubber industry can at present produce double the average yearly consumption of rubber in this country.

What this means in terms of productivity is seen in the following comparison: it takes approximately 40,000 men to produce the amount of natural rubber that 1,000 can produce synthetically!

The story of synthetic rubber again points the paradox: will this tremendous increase in productivity result in more unemployment and misery or will it be utilized to give greater leisure to the workers?

Air Transportation

Though there is no immediate prospect of the substitution of air for railroads in the hauling of basic freights, there has nonetheless been a continuous expansion of air transportation. As the National Resources Committee wrote:

“We are improving a wonderful machine ... readjusting the machine to handle a freight traffic consisting more largely of consumers’ goods and relatively less of capital goods than in the past, and to serve the rapidly increasing passenger traffic of a surprisingly nomadic society.”

The present 50-cent-per-ton-mile rate may soon be cut by as much as forty per cent, thus expediting the use of air freight for perishable and luxury items. As transportation becomes cheaper and faster, productivity is increased and the whole productive cycle can be completed that much faster.

In the field of passenger transportation, the plane will soon be used predominantly for long trips. Within a few years, the airlines will have about 90 per cent of transcontinental traffic.

While this is not a direct factor in increasing productivity, it is obvious how cheaper and faster transportation results in the possibility of more efficient and plentiful production and distribution of goods. How capitalism will use that is another matter.


Electronic devices, at present utilized by only five per cent of the industries that need them, are among the more Buck Rogerish of modern industrial techniques. W.C. Hutchins, engineer for General Electric, writes of them:

“The science of electronics has enabled the engineer to build equipment that is almost human in that he has practically duplicated four of the human senses ... the mercury vapor detector simulates the sense of smell; the sound level meter the sense of hearing; the vibration meter the sense of touch; the photoelectric tube the sense of sight.”

These electronic devices are capable of speed, refinement and efficiency far beyond that of the human organism. A man’s eye can distinguish 10,000 variations in color, the electronic eye two million!

Writes Fortune magazine in its February, 1946, issue:

“... the electronics industry was boosted by the war. At war maximum it was a $4 billion industry, bigger than the automobile before the war ... How many man-hours are saved by all electronic devices? Before the war, when electronic tubes were few, a rough estimate was 175 million man-hours saved annually.”


These, then, are just a few of the possible sources of a great expansion in the productivity of this country. We have still to discuss the most miraculous of all: atomic energy. But even now we can understand that if there were no expansion whatever of existing productive facilities, this country could still give to its people a wonderful life of leisure and plenty provided its resources were used for peaceful, constructive purposes. No more damning condemnation of capitalism is possible than the fact that this is not the case at present.

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