The sensible hunt for manufacturing jobs

By Felix Salmon
July 12, 2012
Michael Kinsley tackles outsourcing today, complaining that Barack Obama is a protectionist who doesn't understand its value, and that Mitt Romney is keener to pander to protectionists than he is to defend free-market principles.

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Michael Kinsley tackles outsourcing today, complaining that Barack Obama is a protectionist who doesn’t understand its value, and that Mitt Romney is keener to pander to protectionists than he is to defend free-market principles. He writes:

Romney or Obama? “I don’t want the next generation of manufacturing jobs taking root in countries like China or Germany.” Early in the Republican primary campaign, China was the one subject Romney seemed genuinely agitated about. Imposing tariffs on Chinese goods was on the long list of things Romney said he was going to do on Day One of his presidency. Maybe he still is, but he doesn’t play it up the way he used to.

Meanwhile, if Romney is a free trader at heart, faking a bit of protectionism, Obama seems to be a protectionist at heart, faking a belief in free trade. That quote in the previous paragraph is from Obama, and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how markets work. Trade is not a zero-sum game. There isn’t a certain number of manufacturing jobs that will either go to China or Germany, or come to us. We want China and Germany to have lots of manufacturing jobs. The more they have, the richer they are, the better off we will be as well. Beggar-thy-neighbor policies don’t work.

Kinsley is probably right on the politics, here, but he’s wrong on the economics. Here’s Obama’s quote, in context:

I was able to sign trade agreements with Korea and Colombia and Panama so our businesses can sell more goods to those markets. That’s why I’ve fought for investments in schools and community colleges, so that our workers remain the best you’ll find anywhere, and investments in our transportation and communication networks, so that your businesses have more opportunities to take root and grow.

I don’t want America to be a nation that’s primarily known for financial speculation and racking up debt buying stuff from other nations. I want us to be known for making and selling products all over the world stamped with three proud words: “Made in America.” And we can make that happen. (Applause.)

I don’t want the next generation of manufacturing jobs taking root in countries like China or Germany. I want them taking root in places like Michigan and Ohio and Virginia and North Carolina. And that’s a race that America can win.

This, it seems to me, is an entirely coherent economic policy if what you’re trying to do is maximize the number of good working-class jobs in America. There’s no doubt that US employment, as a whole, is on a long-term secular trend away from goods and towards services. And at the same time, the two countries with the world’s biggest trade surpluses — China and Germany — are precisely the two countries with the healthiest manufacturing industries. What’s more, neither of them is suffering a jobs crisis.

So the question arises: should the US continue to accept the Ricardian bargain whereby it concedes to China and Germany the comparative advantage in manufacturing, while keeping for itself the comparative advantage in borrowing-to-consume and constructing synthetic CDOs? The answer is no, and not only because there’s something hollow and dangerous about an economy which is too reliant on financial whiz-bangery. There’s something more important at stake here, and that’s employment.

US manufacturing in fact is extremely competitive on a global scale; the problem is that output has lagged productivity improvements, with the result that we’re making more stuff with ever fewer people.

There’s no particular reason why that should be the case: when manufacturers in China and Germany become more efficient, that’s their sign to employ more people, rather than fewer. As each employee becomes increasingly profitable, it makes perfect sense to keep on adding more employees. Or at least it does in some countries. In the US, by contrast, capital is cheap and plentiful, and there’s much more incentive here to replace people with capital goods wherever possible.

But at that point, why even invest the money in the manufacturing industry at all? Everything becomes a question of opportunity cost, and if you can get higher returns in say the financial sector, then the rational thing to do is to start an investment bank, make lots of money from your trading desk, and then take the proceeds and spend them on manufactured goods from China and Germany. That’s how markets work: goods and money become interchangeable, and if you have money then you don’t need to be able to actually make things any more. Money gives you all the competitive advantage you need.

Except, that’s a strategy which works until it doesn’t. I’m reminded of this bit from Kurt Eichenwald’s piece on Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer in the latest Vanity Fair:

The Microsoft CEO used to proclaim that it would not be first to be cool, but would be first to profit — in other words, i would be the first to make money by selling its own version of new technologies. But that depended on one fact: Microsoft could buy its way into the lead, because it always had so much more cash on hand than any of its competitors.

No more. The advantage that Ballmer relied on for so long is now nonexistent. Google has almost the same amount of cash on its books as Microsoft — $50 billion to Microsoft’s $58 billion. Apple, on the other hand, started the year with about $100 billion. Using superior financial muscle won’t work for Microsoft or Ballmer anymore.

A technology company’s ability to innovate is not a bad metaphor for an economy’s ability to manufacture things and employ people while doing so. If it’s lacking, then for a certain amount of time that hole can be patched with money. But not forever.

And so I think that Barack Obama’s push to bring manufacturing employment back to Michigan and Ohio and Virginia and North Carolina makes all the sense in the world. Trade is not a zero-sum game — Kinsley is right about that — but at the same time that’s no reason to feel sanguine when you see good working-class jobs get exported to countries where the idea of building a blue-collar career in the manufacturing sector is still a perfectly sensible and reasonable one. America does not have a jobs crisis among college graduates, even if the employment situation for recent graduates right now is grim. It does have a jobs crisis in areas where factories have closed and industrial skills are no longer valued.

If you run a company, one of your jobs is to ensure that your company’s money isn’t wasted. And similarly, if you run an economy, one of your jobs is to ensure that your country’s labor force isn’t wasted. There are far too many Americans, right now, who could be working and aren’t. That’s downright inefficient. Their skills are well suited to the manufacturing industry. And so, if new manufacturing jobs are to be created, somewhere in the world, it makes a huge amount of sense that they be created in places like Michigan and Ohio and Virginia and North Carolina: that’s where the low-hanging fruit lies, in terms of hard-working employees with enormous potential productivity gains.

Kinsley’s right that we want China and Germany to have manufacturing jobs. But here’s the thing: China and Germany have manufacturing jobs. New manufacturing jobs, at least in the short term, should move where there’s both a shortage of such things right now, and a large potential labor force willing to get to get to work tomorrow. Certainly it’s the job of the president to encourage precisely that. And if he succeeds, he will have built a powerful economic engine in a part of America which is not doing well at the moment.

Note that Obama talked about bringing those jobs to America not in any protectionist context, but rather in the context of a series of free trade agreements which, at the margin, make outsourcing easier rather than harder. His goal is not to steal jobs from elsewhere, but rather to make America a place where the infrastructure and workers are so attractive that companies around the world decide to source their manufacturing here. No one cares, any more, about the nationality of the employers in these states: a job is a job, whether your employer is American or Brazilian or Swedish.

The computer I’m writing this on was made by an American company in China, but there’s no particular reason why other items in my household shouldn’t be made by a Chinese company in America. If the US can create the conditions for that to happen — if Chinese companies voluntarily move some of their manufacturing here because that’s how effective the US manufacturing sector has become — then everybody wins. That’s what Obama wants. And wanting that requires no misunderstanding whatsoever of how markets work.

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