Each month one or two high-profile government reports show the US is growing, adding jobs and generally recovering from the Great Recession. But it’s not clear how that can be, when the part of the economy that makes and moves real things keeps shrinking. Here’s a chart, published recently by Zero Hedge, showing that US manufacturing has been contracting for the past year:

Factory orders Dec 15

Meanwhile, the companies that move physical things around are falling hard.

One reason for the discrepancy between overall growth and real stuff is that most of today’s economy is made up of services, and they’re doing okay.

Service sector Dec 15

What is the service sector? Mostly software, restaurants, banks, construction companies, retailers, doctors and hospitals.

Can an economy thrive if it doesn’t make or move physical things? Intuitively the answer is no, because most of the services mentioned above either maintain the status quo (like healthcare and restaurants) or (like houses) consume rather than build capital. As for banking, in its current incarnation it’s almost certainly a net negative, draining capital from productive uses and funneling it to trading desks and political action committees.

The US, in short, is engaged in an experiment to see how long an economy can function with services growing and manufacturing contracting. As with so many of today’s monetary and fiscal experiments, no one knows when definitive results will come in. But the data so far aren’t encouraging.