One of the more frustrating aspects of what passes for economic analysis these days is the accepted principle that the old days are gone and “the good jobs aren’t coming back.” We’re talking, of course, about manufacturing jobs which were the mainstay of the American economy for the better part of the last century but collapsed almost entirely in the era of free trade. (This is also one of the chief drivers of the popularity of Donald Trump’s campaign messaging these days.) The question which is too often left unasked is, why? Why should people simply accept that as the new reality?
Don’t look for too many answers coming from Richard Cohen in the Washington Post this week. He grimly wishes that Donald Trump would be more “honest” with his supporters and tell them that not only are things bad, but they’re fixing to get a whole lot worse.
If Trump were honest (and if pigs had wings . . .), he would tell his supporters that things are only going to get worse. He’d warn them that the robots are coming — just over yonder hill — and they are going to take so many jobs that serious people are now discussing something called universal basic income, or UBI. This would be a stipend — much like a Social Security payment — that everyone would get, regardless of income, so that the trucker who gets replaced by a robotic truck can still, as it were, make a living. In Silicon Valley, where the silicon scabs of tomorrow are being conceived and manufactured, UBI is a lively topic. I have yet to hear it mentioned by Trump…
Trump apologists, the ones who are now finding virtue in his demagoguery, are selling out the people who have already been sold out once. Recognizing that free trade has costs as well as benefits is hardly the same as proposing a solution. Acknowledging the pain of the Rust Belt is not a remedy, and blaming immigrants, China’s monetary policy, trade agreements and “stupid” politicians lacks a certain specificity.
While I agree wholeheartedly that Donald Trump has failed to provide much (if anything) in the way of specifics when it comes to reversing job outsourcing and rebuilding an American manufacturing base, is it any wonder that the message resonates? Cohen is emblematic of the entire class of our betters who regularly tell us to stop whining and simply get used to the fact that careers built on diligent labor and a solid work ethic for an employer who produces things people actually need and sticks around for the long run are now a pipe dream. What sort of solution does the author offer? Once the robots have taken over the few remaining job in that sector, the government should offer some sort of “Universal Basic Income” as dreamed of in most socialist paradise circles. Thanks, Richard. That’s very helpful.
Reading this column caused me to go back and dig up an article in The Atlantic which I bookmarked last year. In it, Alana Semuels describes what sounds like a fairly hopeful sign of the times referred to as “onshoring.” He specifically talks about GM’s move to relocate an automobile manufacturing line from Mexico to Tennessee. This created more than 3,000 well paying jobs and should have been great news for the country, right? Not so, according to Semuels. You see, they’re the wrong kinds of jobs in the wrong places.
But these are not your father’s manufacturing jobs. Many of the companies are locating their new plants in right-to-work states where it’s less likely their workers will join a union, and the prevailing wages are far lower.
In fact, nationally, the average wages of production and non-supervisory employees in manufacturing are lower than they were in 1985, when adjusted for inflation. In September, those employees made an average $8.63 an hour, in 1982 to 1984 dollars, while they made an average of $8.80 an hour in 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
I bring up Semuels’ article only because it exemplifies this overwhelming message of hopelessness even when companies attempt to do something good. It’s an attitude which is endemic on the Left and seeks to embed politics into every aspect of struggling capitalism. If new jobs are created but they aren’t union jobs they’re simply not good enough. Wages tend to be lower in some of the states he references because manufacturers are facing crippling competition and they have to keep costs down just to survive. Wage stagnation is a problem to be sure, but that’s not the fault of a lack of unions. It’s caused by the external pressure of all of our “free trade” partners who can afford to produce goods using what amounts to slave labor.
This is a problem of our own creation and it started back in the nineties under Bill Clinton. Both political parties have been complicit in it from the beginning but these policies have acted to the detriment of the working class and people aren’t quite as stupid as our elected leaders might wish. Rather than denigrating or punishing companies who do what GM did in Tennessee, perhaps we should be celebrating them and trying to learn from these experiments. This war isn’t over unless we listen to people like Cohen and Semuels and glumly accept that it is.