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You have to give New York Times economic correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum credit. He decided to go the flood of recent media attacks on trade policy critics one better by not only charging that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others are economic know-nothings, but belittling them for an ignorantly nostalgic focus on American manufacturing. Less admirable – Appelbaum’s decision to broach the subject before learning anything important about it, or much of the broader economy.

In an October 4 Times Magazine article, Appelbaum repeated standard claims that American politicians’ “obsession” with manufacturing misses the mark because the sector is doing better than ever, and because its only major problem is actually a sign of progress – its falling payrolls reflect higher productivity, and thus outstanding technological progress. His new wrinkle: a contention that U.S. leaders should spend less time trying to revive manufacturing employment (and wages, which have lagged badly, too?), and more on turning the low-wage service sector jobs into family wage jobs.

But Appelbaum’s own assessment of manufacturing badly misses the mark. His claim of record output, for example, is belied by Federal Reserve data clearly showing that industry’s output is down 4.45 percent in real terms since the Great Recession started – more than eight years ago. Nor does Appelbaum seem familiar with the productivity figures. They show manufacturing’s performance stagnating recently by the broadest measure (multi-factor productivity).

Industry’s record in international trade is another flag that’s at least deep orange. Manufacturing keeps racking up record annual trade deficits, and yesterday’s U.S. government figures revealed that August saw the latest in a string of monthly record shortfalls. These trade balances matter because standard trade theory teaches that one of international commerce’s main virtues is fostering the best possible international division of labor. By its logic, America’s failure to produce anywhere near as many manufactures as it consumes – including in numerous high-value industries like semiconductors, advanced telecommunications gear, pharmaceuticals, construction equipment, machine tools, and ball bearings – unmistakably signals that such activity has a grim future in the United States.

And if such pessimism is warranted, the entire American economic picture will look grim as well. For no other sector appears poised to replace manufacturing as the nation’s productivity growth champ. And it’s hard to identify major new employment prospects for science and technology workers if manufacturing continues stagnating (at best). After all, the sector conducts 70 percent of the private sector’s research and development, and its STEM workers comprise 60 percent of the national total.

Moreover, this funding and these workers seem to be doing an awfully good job on the innovation front, as they generate nine out of every ten U.S. patents.

But perhaps strangest of all is Appelbaum’s call for downplaying efforts to foster manufacturing employment and dramatically raising the wages and improving the living standards of America’s fast-food workers, home healthcare aides and the like via government fiat. At least he recognizes that such steps will have nothing to do with the free market principles so widely used to justify laissez-faire approaches to manufacturing’s woes. But why does he evidently suppose that productivity improvements and especially technological innovation won’t displace many of these jobs, too, especially if employment costs get high enough? And what kind of formula for boosting national competitiveness – and therefore hopes for longer term, sustainable prosperity – would this be?

Ironically, promoting domestic manufacturing looks like the best, most market-friendly way to help these low-wage workers, too. For the sector boasts the economy’s greatest multiplier effect for overall economic activity (which by definition creates new jobs) and one of the largest for employment itself. In other words, manufacturing punches far above its weight in generating new jobs throughout the rest of the economy (e.g., in transportation, construction, retail, and wholesale). Even better, most of these sectors already pay considerably more than those singled out by Appelbaum – and without new government props.    

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