Report: High wages aren’t the issue with manufacturing

December 12, 2015 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, National politics, Politics, State of Conservatism, Wal-Mart · Comments Off on 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.

Back to that three letter word: J-O-B-S

I still like picking on Joe Biden. But over the last month or so I’ve collected a lot of divergent information on policy suggestions, each of which promses to be the magic elixir to get our economy moving in the right direction again.

I think the key to this lies in two areas: manufacturing and energy. In that respect, I keep a lot of information handy to discuss in this space, with a group called the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) generally representing the left-of-center, pro-union side. And while their main goal seems to be increasing the coffers of Big Labor, luckily most workers still have free will – ask the employees at the Tennessee Volkswagen plant about how much effort from the UAW can be rebuffed in a simple up-or-down vote.

Currency manipulation is one area in which the AAM has been focusing. A study they cite, by the liberal Economic Policy Institute (EPI), makes the case that:

Many of the new jobs (if the subject is addressed) would be in manufacturing, a sector devastated by rising trade deficits over the past 15 years. Rising trade deficits are to blame for most of the 5.7 million U.S. manufacturing jobs (nearly a third of manufacturing employment) lost since April 1998. Although half a million manufacturing jobs have been added since 2009, a full manufacturing recovery requires greatly increasing exports, which support domestic job creation, relative to imports, which eliminate domestic jobs.

Personally I disagree with the premise that rising trade deficits can be blamed for the job losses; instead, I think an absurdly high corporate tax rate and onerous regulations have contributed more to chasing away American manufacturing. (While many simply blame “outsourcing” for the problem, fewer understand the dynamics which led to the outsourcing.) Yet there is merit to the idea that all sides should be competing on as level of a playing field as possible when it comes to the means of exchange, and China is one of the worst offenders. (And why not? They are communists, after all, and you can’t trust communists any farther than you can throw them.)

Two of EPI’s findings are quite interesting: first, should the EPI model come to its fruition, the oil and gas industry would be the hardest hit, and second, Maryland would be among the states least impacted, with barely a 1% rise in employment.

Yet AAM president Scott Paul is quick to blame Barack Obama:

President Obama promised to hold China accountable. He hasn’t. The White House last month said President Obama would use his pen and his phone to make progress on economic issues. He could start today by signing an order to designate China as a currency manipulator.  Then, he could call the Chinese leadership to demand an end to that practice, and secure an agreement on a plan to cut this deficit in half over the next three years.

I sort of wish Mr. Paul would also figure out the other problems, but he is correct to be concerned about our Chinese policy. Job creation has become more important than deficit reduction in the minds of Americans, both in the AAM poll I cited above and a Pew Research Poll cited by the American Petroleum Institute (API).

And the industry which benefits from API’s efforts represents another piece of the puzzle which we can take advantage of: our abundant energy supplies. While America uses 26 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year, there is the possibility of as much as 10,000 trillion cubic feet within our land mass. That’s nearly 4 centuries worth, so I don’t think we will run out anytime soon. (Estimates have continued on an upward path as new technology makes previously unworkable plays economically viable.) As I keep saying, it’s too bad we don’t have a nice shale play under our little sandbar. Not only that, but the infrastructure we will need to take advantage of all that (and help curtail spot shortages like the ones we’re having this chilly winter) would be a guaranteed job creator – one which derives its basis from the private sector. New pipelines aren’t just for export facilities like Cove Point, but could benefit this area and perhaps bring more natural gas service to our region.

Unfortunately, Maryland isn’t poised to take advatange of either the manufacturing or energy booms at present, thanks to back-breaking economic policy and a foolhardy go-slow approach on fracking. It takes a strident opponent of the latter to suggest yet another approach which will do damage to the former, but gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur accomplishes this with the tired old combined reporting proposal. Hers comes with a twist, though, which she announced last Monday:

In the morning, Mizeur will host several Maryland business owners for a Small Business Roundtable. They will discuss her legislation to provide tax relief to small business owners, as well as other highlights from the campaign’s ten-point plan for jobs and the economy, which was released last fall. She will also hear from the business owners on a range of other concerns.

(snip)

At 1:00 pm, several business owners will join Mizeur in front of Ways and Means to testify on behalf of legislation that would enact combined reporting and distribute the estimated $197 million to small businesses for personal property tax rebates.

It’s the liberal way of picking winners and losers. And according to a 2008 study by the Council on State Taxation – admittedly, an opponent of the practice:

Combined reporting has uncertain effects on a state’s revenues, making it very difficult to predict the revenue effect of adopting combined reporting.

Even proponents don’t address that aspect, instead emphasizing how it would “level the playing field between multistate corporations and locally based companies.” But since Mizeur’s idea is one which would subsidize some businesses under a certain employment plateau, the uncertainty would likely be just another reason to avoid Maryland.

On the other hand, a Republican like Larry Hogan at least gets businesses together to discuss what they really want. Granted, once he gets them together he speaks in broad concepts rather than a more specific plan, but at least he’s listening to the right people. None of the others in the GOP field have specific plans, either, although Ron George probably comes the closest.

One has to ask what states which are succeeding economically are doing to attract new business. The state with the lowest unemployment rate, North Dakota, is prospering – more like crushing the rest of the field – on account of abundant energy resources, and perhaps that success is pulling surrounding states up with it. Its three neighbors (Montana, South Dakota, and Minnesota) all rest within the top 13 when it comes to low unemployment rates and other regional states like second-place Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming, and Kansas lie within the top 10. Although the top five are right-to-work states, half the bottom 10 are as well. Nor can tax climate be seen as a dominating factor since the top 10 in unemployment vary widely in that category: Wyoming, South Dakota, Utah, and Montana are indeed excellent in that aspect, but North Dakota is decidedly more pedestrian and Iowa, Vermont, and Minnesota are among the worst.

But Maryland has the tendency to depend too much on the federal government as an economic driver. This presents a problem because bureaucrats don’t really produce anything – they skim off the top of others’ labor but don’t add value. Certainly it’s great for those who live around the Beltway, and it’s telling that all three of the Democratic candidates have a connection to the two Maryland counties which border the District of Columbia while none of the Republicans save Larry Hogan do.

In order to create jobs, I think the state needs to diversify its economy, weaning itself off the government teat and encouraging manufacturing and energy exploration. Meanwhile, there’s also a need to rightsize regulation and restore a balance between development and Chesapeake Bay cleanup – specifically by placing a five-year moratorium on new environmental restrictions while cleaning up the sediment behind the Conowingo Dam. Let’s give that which we’ve already done a chance to work and other states a chance to catch up.

The best route out of government dependence is a job. Unfortunately, when the aim of the dominant political party in the state is one of creating as many dependents as possible, a lot of good entrepreneurs will be shown the door. It’s time to welcome them in with open arms.

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