On manufacturing: Just what we need, more words

At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., today, the president will announce a $500 million manufacturing initiative aimed to bring together industry, universities and the government to determine the best investments to boost America’s competitiveness and create jobs. That sounds nice.

“Today, I’m calling for all of us to come together… to spark a renaissance in American manufacturing and help our manufacturers develop the cutting-edge tools they need to compete with anyone in the world,” Obama said in a written statement. “With these key investments, we can ensure that the United States remains a nation that ‘invents it here and manufactures it here’ and creates high-quality, good paying jobs for American workers.”

The president is expected to highlight several specific initiatives this morning, including a $70 million project to award grants to companies that are making major advances in robotics and a plan to invest $100 million in “material genomes.”

The president is right to worry about the manufacturing sector. Since he took office, the nation has lost some 865,000 manufacturing jobs. The president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended this latest initiative — officially titled the “Advanced Manufacturing Partnership,” or AMP (so many cute acronyms in government speak!). Those advisors surely have some expertise — but, you kind of have to wonder, does a president who accuses ATMs of killing jobs really understand the importance of innovation?

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has the same question. Because I’m on a Ron Johnson fan girl kick today, I might as well share this video, the senator’s preemptive response to whatever the president might say today in his speech at Carnegie Mellon.

The Milton Friedman story Johnson shares is particularly magical.

Milton Friedman once visited China and saw workers digging a canal with shovels.  When he asked, “why not use bulldozers?” He was told because digging with shovels created more jobs.  Friedman replied, “Then why not use spoons, instead of shovels?”

Why not, indeed? So simple, so sensible, so brilliant.

Perhaps this partnership will yield results — I don’t really want to knock it. Certainly, I understand the exigencies of laboratory research. It’s a rare area in which government funding even for failure makes sense, as each failure brings a researcher closer to success. But on a higher level entirely, nothing prompts innovation like the lure of profit and I question whether a $500 million government-academia-industry initiative will do much more than provide the president with a photo op and an excuse to say he’s addressed the manufacturing sector. The initiative doesn’t seem to pay nearly enough respect to the reality that the private sector — and not the government — creates jobs.