On the Sunday talk shows, Trump made variations of the same argument he made in 2012 — that as president he would be able to bring back lost manufacturing jobs from China and Mexico. If there’s been a policy “theme” to Trump’s campaign — and my colleague David Fahrenthold cogently explains why I put quotes around that word — it’s that past U.S. presidents have been bad trade negotiators and that because of these bad trade deals the rest of the world is somehow fleeing the U.S. manufacturing sector. This is a message he’s delivered again and again and again.
Trump’s message is very appealing to those who genuinely believe this narrative about the U.S. economic decline. It’s also a big lie.
To repeat a point I’ve made before (and will have to make again because this is a powerful myth), the truth is that while a small fraction of American manufacturing jobs migrated overseas over the past few decades, a far greater fraction of manufacturing jobs simply disappeared and are not coming back. The far bigger driver of these job losses is the creative destruction that comes from technological innovation and productivity increases. As Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate a few years ago:
[O]n net, global manufacturing employment declined from 1996-2006. Factory jobs were certainly added in China, but they weren’t one-to-one displacing factory jobs in the West. Rather, the geographical shift in manufacturing employment is just a small ripple on the surface of the ocean — the big trend is simply toward more automation and more productivity.
[T]he U.S. jobs slide began well before China’s rise as a manufacturing power. And manufacturing employment is falling almost everywhere, including in China. The phenomenon is driven by technology…Pretty much every economy around the world has a low or declining share of manufacturing jobs. According to OECD data, the U.K. and Australia have seen their share of manufacturing drop by around two-thirds since 1971. Germany’s share halved, and manufacturing’s contribution to gross domestic product there fell from 30 percent in 1980 to 22 percent today. In South Korea, a late industrializer and exemplar of miracle growth, the manufacturing share of employment rose from 13 percent in 1970 to 28 percent in 1991; it’s fallen to 17 percent today.
At the same time that U.S. manufacturing jobs have disappeared, U.S. manufacturing output has increased. Manufacturing has simply become so productive that it is no longer the jobs engine that it was in the 20th century.
If you want more evidence, consider Monday’s excellent New York Times story by Hiroko Tabuchi about Chinese textile firms now relocating factories back to the United States. It turns out that rising labor costs in China compared with the United States has improved U.S. competitiveness. According to Tabuchi, “for every $1 required to manufacture in the United States, Boston Consulting estimates that it costs 96 cents to manufacture in China.”
So that means a massive exodus of Chinese jobs coming to the United States, right? Wrong:
The work is highly automated, with the factory’s 32 production lines churning out about 85 tons of yarn a day. Even when Keer opens a second factory next year, it will hire just 500 workers, a fraction of the thousands of workers who toiled at cotton mills across the South for much of the 19th and 20th centuries — a big reason Keer is able to keep costs down.
If that story sounds familiar — Chinese manufacturers relocating to the United States, but not a lot of new jobs created — it’s because the New York Times reported this exact same story two years ago. And as that story reported: “politicians’ promises that American manufacturing means an abundance of new jobs is complicated — yes, it means jobs, but on nowhere near the scale there was before, because machines have replaced humans at almost every point in the production process.”
Trump’s “I can bring the jobs back” rests on a false premise that 1970s manufacturing jobs still exist. They don’t — and anyone who tells you differently is trying to con you for your vote.