Thought America’s future was in moving away from making “stuff” and producing oil? Think again

by Ryan Streeter on January 5, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

When historians are writing about the Great Recession, they may record it as a time when America rediscovered the part of her heart and soul that we all thought she had sacrificed to the gods of the information era: manufacturing and oil.

And in a twist of ironic historic fate, it’s all happening during the tenure of a President who thought a big part of his world-historic mission was to usher in an era of green jobs and green tech.

It turns out the aspiring class in America may find its dream largely in making new things with new technology and extracting oil in new and high-tech ways. We’re not going backwards. We’re just rediscovering that an important part of our economic past will be part of our future, albeit in a way consistent with our new technological advances.

Three pieces worth reading on this front:

First, there’s this WSJ story from yesterday on manufacturing’s recent resilience. Its graphic tells the story:

The graphic bears some similarities to a similar graphic from another WSJ article from a year ago:

Note that fabricated metal, transportation products, and computer goods are doing well. These are all growth areas in our economy. And we should note that the red bars in petroleum products from last year have turned into green bars this year. Why?

Because of this second piece worth reading by Arthur Herman, which is a cursory overview of what some people thought impossible not long ago: our extraction of domestic oil will grow markedly in the near future. Herman writes:

Even if you don’t count Alaska, the new boom of off-shore drilling and oil shale production should add another 1.5 million barrels a day to our domestic output by 2015. That’s closing on Saudi Arabia’s daily total. With Canada and Mexico already producing more than Iran and the Arab Emirates combined, we’re looking at a major shift in the geopolitics of oil–with the United States at the center of it.

To go into depth on these realities, be sure to check out Daniel Yergin’s authoritative The Quest, a really good read.

Third, Joel Kotkin’s latest Forbes piece looks at regions to watch in the U.S., one of which is the region he calls “the New Foundry,” those parts of the Great Lakes region and the south where manufacturing big, heavy things is alive and well – and growing. Here’s a good snippet:

Future big growth will not come from bailed-out General Motors or Chrysler, with their legacy costs and still-struggling quality issues, but from foreign makers — Japanese, German and increasingly Korean — that build highly rated, energy-efficient vehicles. These countries are not just investing in cars; they also have placed steel mills and aerospace facilities in the rising south-facing foundry…Of the ten foreign auto assembly plants opened or announced between 1997 and 2008, eight were in Southern right-to-work states. As the recovery has taken hold, new expansions are being announced. In 2011 Toyota opened a new plant in the tiny hamlet of Blue Springs, Miss., just 17 miles from Elvis’ hometown of Tupelo, while Mercedes-Benz announced  $350 million to add capacity to its plant just outside of Tuscaloosa.

Just when the coastal salon crowds thought the world had become safe for a new green era, Solyndra became its poster child while factories and oil fields in America’s heartland are becoming a new face of hope for American workers and investors.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this posted contained a faulty link. Another chart, which I couldn’t locate for the previous post, has also now been added.