A lot of people lament the decline in manufacturing employment, which has fallen by about 1/3 since 2000.
As Upjohn Institute economist Susan Houseman points out in the linked article, we’re talking about 5.5 million lost manufacturing jobs in that time frame.
Instead of recovering as it did in previous recessions, after the 2001 recession manufacturing employment continued to fall, as Houseman points out.
Here’s what it looks like in long perspective
But a number of commentators, including Matthew Yglesias and some more conservative ones cited by Houseman, have argued that what we really ought to be looking at is manufacturing output, which has risen steadily except for small blips during recessions.
What’s wrong with needing fewer people in manufacturing due to greatly increased productivity?
Houseman argues that the increased productivity is a mirage, due to a single industry, computers. She writes:
Real value added in the computer industry grew at a staggering rate of 22 per cent per year from 1997 to 2007 and 16 per cent per year from 2000 to 2010. In contrast, average growth of real value added in the rest of manufacturing was just 1.2 per cent per year from 1997 to 2007; real value added in the rest of manufacturing was actually about 6 per cent lower in 2010 than at the start of the decade.
With that kind of growth, many multiples of GDP growth, we must be an export powerhouse in computers and electronics, right? (Insert joke here.)*
Of course we aren’t, so where does that gigantic growth rate come from? If you remember the debates over inflation that gave us the Boskin Commission, you will recall that one of its criticisms of Bureau of labour Statistics Consumer Price Index (CPI) data was it did not adequately account for improvements in quality over time. Houseman argues that the huge increases in computer power and semiconductor processing speed are what are beneath the apparently massive growth in productivity in the industry. In other words, the price deflators used to calculate real growth are the real reason productivity is apparently growing so rapidly in computers.
If Houseman is right, it means that falling manufacturing employment really is a problem; we have not become so productive that we simply need fewer manufacturing workers. And the fact that productivity is growing by leaps and bounds, yet our trade deficit in electronics keeps getting worse, seems to me to be strong evidence that she is on to something.
* From the Austin Lounge Lizards song, “The Drugs I Need.”