“What happened to manufacturing? In two words, higher productivity,” Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, wrote in 2009.
“The decline in U.S. manufacturing employment is explained by rapid growth in manufacturing productivity over the past 50 years,” said Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) under President George W. Bush.
But a handful of economists are challenging that explanation, chipping away at the long-offered assurances that the state of U.S. manufacturing is not as bad as employment numbers make it look.
Instead, they say, it’s significantly worse.
What caused the job losses, in their view, is less the efficiency of U.S. factories than the failure of those factories to hold their own amid global competition and rising imports. The apparent productivity gains reflected in the official U.S. statistics have been miscalculated and misrepresented, they say, a position that has been at least partially validated by recent research.
“I bought into this idea for a long time that it was superior labor productivity that caused most manufacturing job losses,” said Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. “Then I began to dig into the numbers.”
The arguments, which get a fresh airing in a report to be issued this week by the think tank, are being mounted as economists and politicians on the presidential campaign trial debate what, if anything, to do to help the nation’s manufacturers. Among the options are tax incentives, trade assistance and education credits.
“These numbers have been tossed about to say, ‘Look how productive U.S. factories have been,’ ” said Susan Houseman, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute, co-author with three Federal Reserve economists of a paper that raises questions about the accuracy of the productivity numbers. “The reality is a lot more complex and not as flattering.”
As calculated by federal statisticians, the productivity growth of U.S. factories has seemed quite impressive. Between 1991 and 2011, productivity more than doubled, meaning that a single worker today produces what two did 20 years ago, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.
Looking at this number, many economists have concluded that the loss of manufacturing work could be considered a success story. Just as farming became more efficient over the previous century and fewer Americans found jobs on farms, U.S. manufacturing is simply becoming more efficient, as economists such as N. Gregory Mankiw, CEA chairman under Bush, and Austan Goolsbee, a recent CEA chief under President Obama, have argued.