Trump and Clinton promise to bring back jobs lost to foreign producers. Sanders did also. There are many parts to their promises but the most important are whether they can do it and with what methods, and how many jobs can be brought back. This short piece focuses on the second issue.
Normally the candidates are talking about bringing back manufacturing jobs. How many of those can be brought back? We've lost a lot of them in the last sixty years. Manufacturing employees were 30% of the non-farm American work force in 1955. Now they're just 8.5%. To get the factory work force back to the relative weight it had in 1955, we'd have to add 31,000,000 factory jobs. That's not going to happen.
Thanks to automation we don't need as many factory workers as we used to. But we could have more than we do now. Imagine that through selective tariffs and limiting the currency manipulation by China and other nations that makes American goods expensive, government policy could eliminate the $600 billion trade deficit in manufacturing. Experts say that would add two to three million jobs in the manufacturing sector. And these jobs would create other jobs, so we might be talking about 5 million jobs.
That would be a big deal. If we want to resurrect the 1950s, we are doomed to fail, but if these several million jobs offered better-than-average pay and benefits and union protections too, think what they could do if they went to the south side of Chicago and the north side of Milwaukee, to coal areas of West Virginia, to Fresno, California, and to down-and-out areas of Cleveland, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and the state of Mississippi. These areas are among the poorest in the nation. We hear about them when a police officer shoots a young person of color or when residents go on a shooting spree. But politicians and the media don't pay much attention otherwise. Major party conventions were just held in two of the cities. Did any politician or journalist tour high-poverty neighborhoods and sketch a credible analysis of causes and cures? Or make the contrast between local poverty and alienation on the one hand and the affluence of convention dignitaries on the other? You know the answer.
Reindustrialization won't bring back the 1950s, but properly supported and targeted, it could make a huge difference to millions of poor households. It could be the model for the war on poverty we need now.
Frank Stricker is Emeritus Professor of History, California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is a member of the National Jobs for All Coalition and has just completed American Unemployment: A New History, Explanations, and Remedies.