Trump’s Manufacturing Delusions Leave America Unprepared for the Future of Work
Of all the ridiculous incidents during the presidential campaign, one moment during the primaries stuck out to me. In March 2016, the Republican candidates met for a debate in Detroit, where moderator Chris Wallace asked what these potential Presidents would do to “bring back manufacturing jobs to places like Detroit”.
More than most others in the primary season, this debate question was a sign of things to come. The economic displacement meted out by globalization and technological changes were clearly much more impactful than political experts understood. As we now know, Donald Trump won the primary and the general election on a platform largely based on a rebirth of manufacturing in America’s heartland and an end to “unfair” free trade agreements that have allowed other countries to “steal” our jobs.
His conduct since the election has reflected this focus — Trump’s only major public appearance as President-Elect was a speech trumpeting his agreement to save jobs at the Carrier plant in Indiana. We now know that this Carrier deal was like the rest of Trump’s platform— based on lies, exaggerations, and bluster — but to his supporters, it reflects the central theory of his campaign. With a mix of economic protectionism and mercantilism, Trump promises to stop the unstoppable and return America to a time where middle class jobs were plentiful for those without much education.
The fact is, however, that manufacturing jobs are never going to return to the United States in any significant way, and moreover, the economy is trending towards driving uneducated workers permanently out of work.
The globalized economy means that unskilled labor has migrated permanently to cheaper markets, while technology has ensured that more complex manufacturing still done here can be achieved by fewer and fewer people.
As Sen. Ben Sasse wrote on Twitter, “Automation — even more than trade — will continue to shrink the number of manufacturing jobs. This trend is irreversible.” There have been over 5 million manufacturing jobs lost in the US since 2000:
At the same time, we are heading for a jobs disruption unlike anything our nation has ever seen. Self-driving trucks will put millions of Americans out of work within the next 5–10 years. Amazon’s new Go supermarkets are merely one sign that service industry jobs will not escape automation. The sharing economy has accelerated the trend of fewer Americans working full time, leading to reduced access to things like retirement plans and health insurance.
In other words, especially for Americans without a college education, the future is one that appears to be without enough full-time work to go around. This is a future that requires things like experimenting with the Universal Basic Income, not starting trade wars by putting 35% tariffs on goods from our largest trading partners.
It goes without saying that Americans derive a significant portion of their self-worth, status, and financial stability from their work — but this framework is eroding before our eyes. And by supporting Donald Trump, over 62 million Americans expressed a desire to stop that erosion and put history and technology back in Pandora’s box.
To me, that’s the definition of being in denial. Globalization and technological advancement will continue without or without Donald Trump’s say-so. Companies will continue to outsource, and machines will continue to take work away from low-skilled workers. Our new president and a large portion of the country are stuck dreaming of the past instead of planning for a radically different future — which will leave us all worse off.
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