The United States Makes Things

April 4th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Social Science, Statistical Graphics, Work  |  4 Comments

The other day I got involved in an exchange with some political comrades about the state of manufacturing in the United States. We were discussing this Wall Street Journal editorial, which laments that "more Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined". Leaving aside the typical right-wing denigration of government work, what should we think about the declining share of of Americans working in industries that "make things"?

I've written about this before. But I'm revisiting the argument in order to post an updated graph and also to present an alternative way of visualizing the data.

Every time I hear a leftist or a liberal declare that we need to create manufacturing jobs or start "making things" again in America, I want to take them by the collar and yell at them. Although there is a widespread belief that most American manufacturing has been off-shored to China and other low-wage producers, this is simply not the case. As I noted in my earlier post, we still make lots of things in this country--more than ever, in fact. We just do it with fewer people. The problem we have is not that we don't employ enough people in manufacturing. The problem is that the immense productivity gains in manufacturing haven't accrued to ordinary people--whose wages have stagnated--but have instead gone to the elite in the form of inflated profits and stock values.

Anyway, I'm revisiting this because I think everyone on the left needs to get the facts about manufacturing employment and output burned into their memory. The numbers on employment in manufacturing are available from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, and the data on output is available from the national Federal Reserve site. Here's an updated version of a graph I've previously posted:

Manufacturing Output and Employment (1)

I like this graph a lot, but today I had another idea for how to visualize these two series. Over at Andrew Gelman's blog, co-blogger Phil posted an interesting graph of bicycing distance and fatalities. That gave me the idea of using the same format for the manufacturing data:

Manufacturing Output and Employment (2)

This graph is interesting because it seems to show three pretty different eras in manufacturing. From the 1940's until around 1970, there was a growth in both employment and output. This, of course, corresponds to the "golden age" of post-war Keynesianism, where the labor movement submitted to capitalist work discipline in return for receiving a share of productivity gains in the form of higher wages. From 1970 until around 2000, output continues to rise rapidly, but employment stays basically the same. Then in the last ten years, employment falls dramatically while output remains about the same.

This big take-home point from all this is that manufacturing is not "in decline", at least in terms of output. Going back to an economy with tons of manufacturing jobs doesn't make any more sense than going back to an economy dominated by agricultural labor--due to increasing productivity, we simply don't need that many jobs in these sectors. Which means that if we are going to somehow find jobs for 20 million unemployed and underemployed Americans, we're not going to do it by building up the manufacturing sector.