Myths about American manufacturing jobs


Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

You have heard much over the years about the deindustrialization of America, the outsourcing and offshoring of American jobs (and capital) overseas, the financialization of the American economy, and the rise of the service economy.

People often confuse two different metrics: manufacturing output, and manufacturing jobs. These two metrics have been moving in inverse directions for decades.

You may have heard recently of a "manufacturing renaissance" with an uptick in American manufacturing jobs. Matthew Yglesias recently posted some useful charts at Slate in The Mythical American Manufacturing Renaissance in Three Charts:

But consider this chart which takes [the long] view:


My last chart really drives it home, by showing manufacturing jobs as a share of all jobs:


Ezra Klein provided an explanation for this back in March. This chart will change how you think about manufacturing:


What this shows is that the decline in manufacturing as a share of overall employment has been ongoing since the 1960s and 1970s, and has not really picked up pace in recent decades.

Consider what this means. If someone had cornered you in 1980 and asked
you to predict what the level manufacturing employment would be at in
2009, and you did a straightforward linear projection of the previous
two decades, you would have gotten it almost exactly right. You wouldn’t
have known about the fall of the Soviet Union or the rise of China or
the scale of advances in international communication or automation, but
you still would have gotten it almost exactly right.

* * *

[T]he change is due to rapid productivity growth. That is, automation is
reducing the amount of labor required to produce a given amount of
. That means that prices fall. If people respond those price
changes by buying more and more of the underlying good, then sales will
increase and employment may not fall. But that’s not happened. Instead,
people are saving money on manufactured goods and buying more services,
instead. That’s led to the decline in manufacturing jobs.

This report by John Walsh from October 2012 puts Ezra Klein's conclusion in stark relief.
The Myth of U.S. Manufacturing Decline » CounterPunch:

[T]he decline of domestic U.S. manufacturing is
conventional wisdom. The problem is that it is not true – not even
close. And this falsehood has important consequences.

Let’s take a look at the facts. Here are the data as the UN has
collected them and as put in chart form by John Hunter, on his web site Curious Cat Investing and Economics Blog.


America manufacturing has not been decreasing – it has been increasing.
Far from “losing” manufacturing, the U.S. has seen a steady rise for
decades- even after the financial crisis of 2008. No other country comes
close save for China, which is now slightly ahead. But consider that
China has 20% of humanity, and the U.S. has 5%. Not bad for 5%, not bad
at all.

* * *

What about jobs, then? Let’s look at the data, just for manufacturing within
the U.S., i.e, domestic manufacturing, this time for the entire post
WW2 era. These data were put into graphical form by Mark J. Perry,
Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan and author of the
popular website Carpe Diem:


See also: and

Since 1947 the U.S. has seen persistent growth in domestic
manufacturing and the rate of growth has in fact increased since the
rapid growth of China’s manufacturing in the 1990s. Clearly the
China-U.S. relationship need not be a win-lose one. Now let’s consider
jobs in domestic manufacturing. They increased in the 1960s and remained
roughly constant even as total manufacturing increaseduntil
about 2000. Then jobs took a dive even as manufacturing continued to
increase right up until the economic crisis of 2008. These data cannot be explained by offshoring. There is only one explanation – automation.
This is not to say that “offshoring” has not occurred – only that it cannot explain these data.

Notice that the automation has been gaining momentum in the last
decade with a precipitous job loss even before the economic crisis of
. (In fact this must have a lot to do with the development of the
current economic crisis – but that is another story, which we will deal
with another time.)

* * *

What about exports? The U.S. is the third largest
exporter in the world after China and Germany. Again, not bad for the
U.S. with only 5% of the world’s population. And the U.S., like Germany,
exports high value-added, high profit items, something to which China
aspires but which it is only beginning to do.

The takeaway from this is that the labor intensive manufacturing jobs of the past which provided the middle class with a decent living are not coming back due to automation, robotics, computerization, and ever increasing productivity. Manufacturing jobs are not going to lead the way to a jobs recovery and a "renaissance" of the American middle class. A new Luddite movement is not the answer, either, by the way.


  1. Get real. Look at that massive drop from 1997 to 2007. That was a staggering increase in productivity associated with the internet and automated tooling and measurement.

  2. There are over three million jobs open in America right now. People aren’t as anxious to work anymore. The flat screen tv, a beer from the fridge,, cheap movies from netflixs. Why do that bothersome thing called work.

Comments are closed.