Manufacturing — that is, the business of making stuff — has changed significantly over the past half-century. Perhaps you’ve noticed. While America’s share of industry has constricted, with fewer people needed to perform the same amount of work as in the past, it’s not quite time to start eulogizing.
But the way the presidential candidates have been talking about reviving manufacturing jobs has not been very enlightening, and in some cases they have been willfully obtuse. Their statements are meant to appeal to disaffected workers, but they both oversimplify the problems and ignore the real source of trouble.
Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner, has promised to bring manufacturing jobs back to American workers from abroad. “They can’t get jobs, because there are no jobs, because China has our jobs and Mexico has our jobs,” Mr. Trump said in his campaign announcement speech in June. (He neglected to mention that his own line of neckties is fabricated in China.)
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, seems to regularly misconstrue the state of American manufacturing — more than any other candidate. At the undercard debate in Milwaukee on Nov. 10, Mr. Huckabee explained that the United States has lost five million manufacturing jobs since 2000: “The reason they don’t have jobs is because their jobs are in Mexico, they’re in China, they’re in Indonesia,” he said, referring to American workers. While that is certainly true for some of the jobs lost, outsourcing is not the main driver of domestic job loss.
Republicans aren’t the only ones obsessing over reclaiming these factory jobs. Last month, Hillary Clinton mentioned factory closings when she released her own plan to restore manufacturing jobs through a network of tax credits and federal funding for research. Senator Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, in criticizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has argued that such international trade deals are to blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs in this country.
The problem with this sort of rhetoric is that a lot of the manufacturing jobs the United States lost over the past 50 years didn’t go overseas; they simply disappeared with the advent of new technology.
James Sherk, a research fellow in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation, said the trend in machines taking over factory work that was previously done by humans has been going on since the 1950s. But for presidential candidates, it’s a lot easier to blame other countries rather than robots.
“It’s those basically rote, repetitive tasks where you’re fixing the same thing,” he said. “It’s very hard to imagine any of those positions coming back. Basically, a robot is a lot more affordable than a human employee.”
The skills needed to work on a factory floor today are quite different than they were 20, 10 or even five years ago. Don’t blame stingy companies or over-regulation by the government; blame the rapid progress of technology.
Mark Muro, the policy director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said candidates should recognize that because of advances in technology, manufacturing simply does not employ as many people as it once did. Then again, that level of honesty doesn’t make for as much of a feel-good message.
“My fear is that the Republicans to date may not fully understand what modern advanced manufacturing is,” he said. “It’s not necessarily thousands of people pouring into the plant as in the old days.”
Instead of talking down to blue-collar workers, candidates should admit that trying to restore manufacturing to what it once was in this country is not an attainable, or even a desirable, goal. This is not to say the government should not work to bring jobs back to the United States, or that manufacturing as an industry is not valuable to the American economy. But many of the jobs politicians want to restore aren’t on the table anymore.
Read more: Time to Talk Robots
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