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Most Americans of working age can’t remember when manufacturing wasn’t in decline.  It’s been a staple of news and politics since the Carter administration. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Policy tapped right into the mood of inevitable decay at a hearing last week on rebuilding American manufacturing.

Madisonville-Logo(185x185)The late afternoon timing of the hearing didn’t help anyone’s attention span.

Imagine the late shift at a factory out near the railroad tracks that’s been cutting back production for years.  The workers aren’t sure the foreign owners remember they have a factory there and the workers also aren’t sure whether it’s better to be remembered or forgotten.

Or alternatively, what with last week’s snow turning crusty and it already becoming dark outside, imagine the factory political commissars bringing next year’s production targets to workers at a ball-bearing plant in the Ural Mountains.

On a gloomy Washington day, even the lighting wasn’t interested in the hearing room.

Only three of eight senators showed up and there weren’t many more people in the audience.  The perkiest staff member turned out to be the one responsible for Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s crutches.  Both of them (Heller and the staffer, although both crutches also departed) left as soon as it was polite to do so. Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., kept the witnesses busy until Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., could get back from the Senate floor and take over the questioning.

Teaching at Harvard demands a few tricks to keep the students engaged. Warren has an entire repertory of nods and head shakes to do so. She’s Bartholomew Cubbins but with head gestures.  Warren’s moving head carries more nuance than many members of Congress can find in the dictionary.

She has a slow, methodical “aren’t you clever” nod to encourage a witness. She can do a rapid “hurry up and finish your point” nod and she can tweak that into a “good point, please continue” gesture or, just as subtly, turn it into its near opposite, the “I’ve heard this before and don’t believe it for a second” nod. Warren has an emphatic, chin-down-once-and-stop nod to say, “Well done for citing that obscure research,” and she varies that slightly in a, “The policy is obvious. How could anybody disagree?” nod. She’s got a middle-speed “as a witness before this committee you can have your say nod but nobody is taking you seriously” nod.

Warren has a combination nod and head shake to say, “The evidence is mixed.” She’s got a nod that turns into a head shake. She can shake her head to convey disbelief, and, like everybody else, she can shake her head in disagreement. What sets Warren apart is that she can even shake her head in agreement.  She pulled that one off at least once at Wednesday’s hearing.

American manufacturing should be so adept.

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