January 5, 2016


Time to Talk Robots (Emma Roller JAN. 5, 2016, NY Times)

Republicans aren't the only ones obsessing over reclaiming these factory jobs. Last month, Hillary Clinton mentioned factory closings when she released her own plan to restore manufacturing jobs through a network of tax credits and federal funding for research. Senator Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, in criticizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has argued that such international trade deals are to blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs in this country.

The problem with this sort of rhetoric is that a lot of the manufacturing jobs the United States lost over the past 50 years didn't go overseas; they simply disappeared with the advent of new technology.

James Sherk, a research fellow in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation, said the trend in machines taking over factory work that was previously done by humans has been going on since the 1950s. But for presidential candidates, it's a lot easier to blame other countries rather than robots.

"It's those basically rote, repetitive tasks where you're fixing the same thing," he said. "It's very hard to imagine any of those positions coming back. Basically, a robot is a lot more affordable than a human employee."

The skills needed to work on a factory floor today are quite different than they were 20, 10 or even five years ago. Don't blame stingy companies or over-regulation by the government; blame the rapid progress of technology.

Mark Muro, the policy director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, said candidates should recognize that because of advances in technology, manufacturing simply does not employ as many people as it once did. Then again, that level of honesty doesn't make for as much of a feel-good message.

"My fear is that the Republicans to date may not fully understand what modern advanced manufacturing is," he said. "It's not necessarily thousands of people pouring into the plant as in the old days."

Instead of talking down to blue-collar workers, candidates should admit that trying to restore manufacturing to what it once was in this country is not an attainable, or even a desirable, goal. This is not to say the government should not work to bring jobs back to the United States, or that manufacturing as an industry is not valuable to the American economy. But many of the jobs politicians want to restore aren't on the table anymore.

Posted by at January 5, 2016 3:28 PM