The campaign fetishization of manufacturing


I’m not the only one who found last night’s continuing fetishization of manufacturing to be a bit off-base (emphasis in bold are mine):

The word “manufacturing” was used 11 times in this debate. You would think it was the key to the entire economy. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing jobs only account for 8.6 percent of total non-farm jobs. The definitions get tricky here, so perhaps the real number is a bit higher. But it’s not much higher. And it’s not going to become much higher due to a tax incentive. People like the sound of “manufacturing jobs,” but it’s overwhelmingly likely that when Jeremy graduates, he’ll get a job that isn’t in manufacturing. Perhaps he’ll work in the service sector, as almost 70 percent of Americans do.

Indeed, it made Matt Yglesias’s list of bad ideas in last night’s debate:

It was odd that Barack Obama brought up promotion of manufacturing jobs, specifically in the context of telling a college student what kind of job he’s hoping he’ll be able to get after he graduates. It’s a sign of the president’s unreasonable level of interest in this particular sector of the economy. If we promote broad economic recovery, manufacturing employment will almost certainly go up, which is all to the good. But the long-run stagnation of manufacturing as a share of U.S. employment is driven by deep social and technological trends that Obama’s not going to reverse. Sadly, instead of saying that Romney simply suggested that his energy policies (see above) are the real key to sparking the impossible manufacturing rennaissance.

To some extent this focus on manufacturing is a stand-in buzz word for other campaign themes — China (Romney), ‘green jobs’ (Obama), middle class (both). Yet in the broader sense such fetishization is a reflection of an America, and economy, that has long since traded in the benefits of globalization for the cost of a significant manufacturing base. Moreover, in all realistic senses of the idea I don’t think we can reproduce (or even come close) to our peak manufacturing employment, especially in the vacuum of a candidate’s campaign wish-list.

Now this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t think about industrial policy in this country, but we also shouldn’t use it as a vehicle to (impossibly) recreate the past. Especially if doing so ignores or denies real issues involving an increasingly hourglass-shaped economy and a large low-wage workforce in the service sector. If candidates want to dream the impossible in manufacturing then maybe we should all get behind circumventing 111 years and kickstart the Declaration Class starship USS Enterprise XCV 330.


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