Report: High wages aren’t the issue with manufacturing

As you surely know, I have taken an interest in rebuilding manufacturing within our nation in general and this region in particular. While much of our local economy takes the form of manufacturing in an agricultural sense, either through grain farming or its primary purpose of assisting in the raising and processing of chickens, the advantages to the local and national economy if America began to make things again is beyond dispute.

So when I was sent a link to a manufacturing report by the union-led Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM), I wanted to see what the perspective would be. Up front, it was clear that the AAM had their eggs in one basket.

“American factory workers are the solution, not the problem,” said Alliance for American Manufacturing President Scott Paul. “Instead of scapegoats, America needs a manufacturing strategy. That strategy should be built on balancing trade, investing in our infrastructure, enhancing our training programs, and rebuilding our innovation base.”

This report, with the lengthy title “Exchange rate policies, not high wages, are why U.S. lags China and Germany in export performance,” comes from the liberal Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Paul’s interpretation of the report:

“The idea that high wages in the manufacturing industry are causing job losses is common, but incorrect,” (report author Robert E.) Scott said. “Pushing manufacturing jobs into the low-wage, non-union south is a race-to-the-bottom strategy that should be rejected. Instead, we need to fight currency manipulation by countries like China and take a page from Germany and Europe to rebuild American manufacturing.”

His is a truncated summary of the last bullet point solution offered in the EPI report:

The strategy of pushing manufacturing into the low-wage, nonunion southern states is a race-to-the-bottom strategy that should be rejected in favor of high-road strategies: fighting currency manipulation and doing more to rebuild American manufacturing, taking a page from the German and European models (with supply-side policies that benefit and support the manufacturing sector, including increased spending on research and development as a share of gross domestic product; support for “stakeholder capitalism” in which boards of directors include an equal number of representatives of workers and managers; and heavy investment in training and job creation).

Obviously there is a certain appeal to some of getting back to the conditions we had circa 1960, when American manufacturing was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, workers brought home a salary that could support a family while Mom stayed home to take care of the kids, and Big Labor had its own corner of the political table. Five decades later, we have ceded that crown to China for a number of reasons. But I don’t think currency manipulation is the primary reason.

The EPI’s worry that manufacturing jobs are flocking to the “low-wage, non-union south” is in and of itself a tacit admission that wages and benefits are an important factor in site selection. China got to be a manufacturing leader because they have a very inexpensive workforce of semi-skilled laborers – the same sort of workforce that illegal aliens bring to the table in this country, although it depresses wages here in a different manner. Given the equality of other factors nationwide such as the federal regulatory regime and abundant cheap energy, those who do site selection tend to choose the places where they can get the biggest bang for their buck.

By the same token, willing local governments which assist these manufacturers with providing new infrastructure and greenfields for development tend to have more success than those urban areas with problematic old systems and brownfields that require remediation. But that’s not the only reason nice plots of available land sit empty in regions of the country outside the South.

Here in Maryland, we are saddled with a state government that refuses to even consider right-to-work legislation and has gone out of its way to punish large non-union employers. A decade ago when I began this site, the largest state issue was the (so-called) Fair Share Health Care Act and whether the Maryland General Assembly would override Governor Bob Ehrlich’s veto, which they did. The bill was narrowly tailored to affect just one employer: Walmart. And while correlation is not causation, the fact a proposed Walmart distribution center in Somerset County was placed on a continuing hold was blamed on the unfriendly climate for non-union businesses in Maryland. (The bill itself was later struck down in court as an ERISA violation, something I thought improper at the time.)

If you assume my overall argument is in favor of this “race to the bottom,” you’re forgetting a simple fact: a little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing. There are many paths to prosperity our nation, state, and city have available to us but it seems to me the best one is where we add value to the goods and services everyone needs. This is why our chicken industry succeeds, since we take that which is available to us to raise and process chicken for a world market and have developed an expertise that competitors have a hard time matching. Granted, not everyone in the industry makes a ton of money but that’s a function of the value placed on chicken by the market. Chicken is a very useful food product but people also like and can choose beef, pork, seafood, or vegan as well. On the other hand, there’s a reason oil is called “black gold,” to use another useful commodity for an example. The resource has a very high value thanks to its functionality, relative scarcity, and lack of alternative products.

America as a whole needs to again become the place where the most value is added, and once we get there we will all succeed because of it. (That will be the point where trade takes care of itself as well.) Back in 1960 we were the leaders in adding value, but now we’re not because we let others take our place. Re-establishing our manufacturing base will help us get that crown back, even if some parts of the country do more to help themselves in improving their economic state.

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