During every election season, populists in both parties offer some variation of this cliché about American manufacturing: “We don’t make anything anymore.”
“We” still make plenty of things, actually. There are manufacturing jobs available (some of them high paying, specialized, and, no doubt, rewarding). And there may well be new, unexpected, and astonishing things to build in the not-so-distant future.
But still, it’s worth pointing out that manufacturing isn’t the same as manufacturing jobs. And it’s really time we stop venerating both.
Here’s GOP frontrunner Donald Trump the other day grumbling about having to buy thousands of televisions manufactured in South Korea and then wondering why the United States would defend a nation that sells these reasonably priced products. (I own two Samsung televisions, and I can’t think of a better reason to defend South Korea):
“I don’t think anybody makes television sets in the United States anymore. We don’t make anything anymore.”
Similarly, Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Hillary Clinton have, to one extent or another, lamented the shrinking of the American manufacturing base and threatened our economic well-being by promising to bring those jobs “back.” It’s a bad idea.
The Veneration of Widgets
For starters, isn’t it a bit archaic to act like assembling a car is more honorable or useful than being a teacher, a lawyer, an entrepreneur, or an engineer; working in finance; or making a living in the service industry? Perhaps there’s something about the tangibility of seeing a widget being put together by a line of workers that offers voters some affirmation that, indeed, things must be going well. But it doesn’t work that way.
It’s not only about the quantity of jobs that politicians promise to bring back, but the quality of those jobs. Most “lost” manufacturing jobs do not entail high levels of craftsmanship or the use of great innovation. You’re not ‘working with your hands’ in any meaningful sense. There is no shame in labor, but low-value, low-wage jobs requiring intensive and repetitive labor isn’t exactly the kind we should be clamoring to save.
In the 1950s, these kinds of jobs may have offered the security and pensions that people sought — considering the other options. Today, Americans have easier access to education and far more vocational diversity. There is no need romanticize a far less dynamic time in American history.
Evidently, presidential candidates have no problem imagining a future where other people’s grandchildren toil on assembly lines slapping together cheap toys or solar panels. None of them will say, “When elected president I will make it a top priority to create more underpaid busywork for all Americans!” Yet, that’s exactly the sort of counterproductive policies they typically propose, and the kind voters tend to gravitate towards.
When politicians says we’ve outsourced manufacturing jobs, they mean the labor has become too expensive. Most voters probably understand that China, Mexico, Malaysia, “steal” jobs because American workers can’t compete with someone making a dollar an hour. The result is that consumers may enjoy lower prices and, theoretically, should be moving on to more rewarding and higher paying work. Instead, liberals and right-wing populists, promise to save those jobs: They do so by supporting artificially raising wages. By opposing free trade agreements to protect those artificially high wages. By rescuing companies and industries that refuse to innovate or subsidizing those that agree to make things no one really needs.
Rage Against The Machine, But It Won’t Make A Difference
But even the above agenda can’t really stop progress. When politicians contend that manufacturing jobs have “vanished,” they mean that advances have been made that make certain manufacturing jobs highly productive — necessitating fewer workers — and others completely obsolete.
Fact: robots are better than humans at assembling things. In 1975, nearly 30 percent of Americans worked in the manufacturing sector. By 2010, it was only around nine percent. During that time, the GDP tripled and productivity soared, in part, due to automation. Robots don’t get hurt. They don’t have pensions. They rarely make any mistakes. They don’t take vacations. They don’t join unions. Their cost continues to drop. And robots are definitely not going to uninvent themselves.
This kind of transformation happens to the economy at all times in various forms. A century ago almost 50 percent of Americans made their living in agriculture. One farmer fed around seven people. Even in the 1980s, a cultural movement emerged to romanticize the plight of the small farmer, who was already often subsisting on welfare. But 30 years later, only two percent of the American workforce works in agriculture, while productive it up thirtyfold.
When we have presidents who blame ATM machines and other efficiencies for unemployment and a Republican frontrunner who argues the country must be hermetically sealed from competition, that tells us, as always, there’s a deep-seated suspicion of innovation. Many experts argue that Americans living in 2015 face a unique set circumstances that prohibit them from recovering from the ravages of creative destruction. Experts claim that one in three jobs will be taken by software or robots by 2025 and that by 2030 as much as 90 percent of jobs will be at risk of replacement.
If experts excel at anything, it’s being awful at the prediction business. We have no clue what new industry will emerge a decade from now. The more we innovate, though, the more it seems we need human creativity and ingenuity — at least until the post-scarcity world of singularity. Certainly, there’s no guarantee our skills will remain viable in perpetuity; not in a world where an advance can decimate entire industries in a few years. In the real world, we get this. Yet, in the political world, we continue to vote for a bunch of Luddites who believe America greatness is contingent on reinstating an antiquated factory-based economy.