Like a scorekeeper for the world, a tiny unit within the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks globalization's winners and losers, and the results are not always pretty for the United States. Manufacturing jobs here, for example, have fallen faster since 1979 than in Canada, Germany or Japan. Compensation for those jobs dropped here in 2008 but jumped in South Korea and Australia.
Soon, however, Americans may be spared the demoralization in these numbers: The White House wants to shutter the unit that produces them.
President Obama's budget would eliminate the International Labor Comparisons office and transfer its 16 economists to expand the bureau's work tracking inflation and occupational trends. ...
The transfer of the 16 ILC staff to another BLS department will save a whopping $2 million and eliminate the most reliable public source of these economic rankings. In short, our nation will be made the tiniest bit wealthier and a great deal less informed.
Ten Senators sent Obama a letter asking him to promote a strong manufacturing policy that promotes, "Developing a highly skilled and productive workforce, investing in new and emerging technologies, ensuring stable capital markets, providing support for communities in transition, strengthening infrastructure, improving market access for U.S. exports, and fostering entrepreneurial talent are all significant elements of an integrated policy strategy."
But how can we tell how we're doing at those goals, let alone if we're winning, without meaningful comparisons to equivalent and competing economies?
I don't personally even know how important it is to be winning, as such, but there's a lot of evidence to indicate that US workers are losing. Losing pay, losing quality of life, losing health benefits, losing purchasing power and losing civil rights at work. When something bad happens to one person, we're often, even if that person is us, inclined to chalk it up to bad luck or even bad judgment. When something bad happens to a million people, maybe it isn't just them.
Politicians are rarely called to account for failing to address bad luck, but when people feel that they're being systematically ruined right along with their friends and colleagues, they might form a movement. They might pull a bunch of like-minded citizens together to petition their government for a redress of grievances. Politicians just hate that. Even, apparently, former community organizers.
Taking away the prosperity yardstick leaves the economically dispossessed without a rallying point, leaving them open to devastating charges of whining in public. Without some benchmarks, politicians can say whatever they want about how their policies are working and the person who's going to win a fact-free political argument will be a jabby elbow-thrower who probably isn't on my side.
It's only reality that has a liberal bias. Politics, not so much.
I was watching Modern Marvels: Chrome yesterday, and part of the documentary was on a state-of-the-art stainless steel flatware factory, stainless steel being a chrome alloy. It was described as the only facility of its kind in the US, so if you buy stainless flatware with a Made in the USA stamp on it, it was made there. This tidbit was flashed on the screen:
"In 2000, the Sherrill Manufacturing facility produced about 170 million pieces of stainless steel flatware. By 2008, due to overseas competitors, that number had dropped to only 10 million pieces."
Americans haven't stopped buying flatware, they've just stopped hiring their fellow citizens to make it. It's the same story across many, many industries. If a politician is going to claim to be fixing this trend, by supporting new industries, by enforcing trade laws, by increasing worker protections or encouraging worker-owned cooperatives, or whatever their plan, they should have the data to back it up so we can all see what's working and what's not. At $2 million per year, that's a rock-bottom bargain.
We Only Protect Dirty Energy, Here, Thanks
Also, how are we supposed to win in clean energy development when Congress, averse to scary protectionism when it comes to working class jobs, suddenly gets all knotted up about keeping the energy industry safe for asthma-producing coal plants.
They say they just want to make sure that clean energy stimulus dollars only go to creating American jobs, and that sounds great. Except you rarely hear the argument that oil industry subsidies should be cut because ExxonMobil turns around and creates jobs in Nigeria.
(In fairness, Obama has called for the end of oil and gas subsidies, but whether the fact that our oil addiction funds hostile governments will lead to an actual end to those subsidies, remains to be seen.)
But the wind industry, which employs more people than the coal industry, they're fair game. Since the news came out about clean energy stimulus money buying overseas wind turbine parts, there have been concerns raised about whether the policy was creating enough jobs in the United States.
It was a good discussion to have, and it resulted in at least one new manufacturing plant being scheduled to open, courtesy of a Chinese company that made parts for a Texas wind installation that was the flashpoint for the issue. I considered that a win; both for future job creation, and because Texas energy consumers are going to start getting the price stability and health benefits of clean energy long before they could have purchased those services domestically.
Because deciding to be a trade protectionist only when it comes to clean energy is very much like deciding to care about the deficit only when it comes to unemployment benefits. It's a legitimate concern, to a point, past which it can become opportunistic grandstanding.
Looked at carefully, the issue with US wind manufacturing is that stop-and-go federal policy has nearly killed it off three times in the last decade. This has left our domestic industry far behind overseas competitors who are now actually key investors in US wind manufacturing development. If you want to build out clean energy infrastructure, you can't buy it all in the US because we don't make very much of it. That's the direct result of fossil energy subsidies tilting the cost curve towards pollution, and the malign neglect of a very promising technology sector.
While the last couple years have seen the percentage of domestically-produced components in wind installations steadily increase, Congress could destroy this industry yet. Then what will they say? That we can only build coal plants because that's domestically sourced? There's no bottom to that barrel of crazy.
On this issue, I'd hope Obama prevails on Congress to see the error of their ways.
Abandon All Hope?
What he said. (Via.) Or, what he said. We can't even fix the banking system and, unlike our environmental life support system, banking is generally regarded as important.
Nearly every time our politicians open their mouths, they shake another bolt off the engine they're gleefully breaking; and if one hand is replacing a part, you can be sure that the other hand is pulling one off. The United States used to be a well-oiled prosperity machine. Now there's virtually no aspect of policy you can look at without seeing the ways this isn't true anymore.
It could be fixed, and clean energy could be a big part of that, as the president suggests, but I don't see much real will for fixing things in Washington, DC. Maybe Congress and the president should take a page from the nation's mayors.