by Robert Reich
For now, though, some background. First and most broadly, it doesn't make sense for America to try to maintain or enlarge manufacturing as a portion of the economy. Even if the U.S. were to seal its borders and bar any manufactured goods from coming in from abroad--something I don't recommend--we'd still be losing manufacturing jobs. That's mainly because of technology.
When we think of manufacturing jobs, we tend to imagine old-time assembly lines populated by millions of blue-collar workers who had well-paying jobs with good benefits. But that picture no longer describes most manufacturing. I recently toured a U.S. factory containing two employees and 400 computerized robots. The two live people sat in front of computer screens and instructed the robots. In a few years this factory won't have a single employee on site, except for an occasional visiting technician who repairs and upgrades the robots.
Factory jobs are vanishing all over the world. Even China is losing them. The Chinese are doing more manufacturing than ever, but they're also becoming far more efficient at it. They've shuttered most of the old state-run factories. Their new factories are chock full of automated and computerized machines. As a result, they don't need as many manufacturing workers as before.
Economists at Alliance Capital Management took a look at employment trends in twenty large economies and found that between 1995 and 2002--before the asset bubble and subsequent bust--twenty-two million manufacturing jobs disappeared. The United States wasn't even the biggest loser. We lost about 11% of our manufacturing jobs in that period, but the Japanese lost 16% of theirs. Even developing nations lost factory jobs: Brazil suffered a 20% decline, and China had a 15% drop.
What happened to manufacturing? In two words, higher productivity. As productivity rises, employment falls because fewer people are needed. In this, manufacturing is following the same trend as agriculture. A century ago, almost 30% of adult Americans worked on a farm. Nowadays, fewer than 5% do. That doesn't mean the U.S. failed at agriculture. Quite the opposite. American agriculture is a huge success story. America can generate far larger crops than a century ago with far fewer people. New technologies, more efficient machines, new methods of fertilizing, better systems of crop rotation, and efficiencies of large scale have all made farming much more productive.
Manufacturing is analogous. In America and elsewhere around the world, it's a success. Since 1995, even as manufacturing employment has dropped around the world, global industrial output has risen more than 30%.
We should stop pining after the days when millions of Americans stood along assembly lines and continuously bolted, fit, soldered or clamped what went by. Those days are over.