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A Nation of Hamburger Flippers
National Review Online ^ | August 18, 2003 | Bruce Bartlett

Posted on 08/18/2003 5:21:14 PM PDT by dr_who_2

A Nation of Hamburger Flippers? No. Manufacturing output is very healthy.

Everybody seems to be worried about manufacturing these days. All the Democratic presidential candidates condemn the practice of “outsourcing” — laying off manufacturing workers and buying their output more cheaply from China. This is not surprising, given that organized labor has made it a high-priority issue. But they are being joined by some on the right-wing fringe as well, such as Pat Buchanan and Paul Craig Roberts, who warn that we are exporting our sovereignty along with our jobs. They all seem to think that more trade protection is the answer.

The truth is that manufacturing is doing just fine in every way except employment. However, few economists would judge the health or sickness of any industry solely based on employment. By that standard, agriculture has been the sickest industry of all for decades. Rather, such things as output, productivity, profitability, and wages better determine industrial health. On this score, manufacturing is actually doing quite well in the U.S.

Let’s start with the bad news. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 14.6 million Americans employed in manufacturing in July, down from 15.3 million a year earlier, 16.4 million the year before that (2001), and 17.3 million the year before that (2000) — a decline of 16 percent in 3 years. The recent peak for manufacturing employment occurred in March 1998 at 17.6 million — about the same as it had been for the previous 15 years.

By contrast, industrial production has remained relatively strong. The Federal Reserve Board’s industrial production index is up 5 percent since manufacturing employment peaked in 1998, and down just 5 percent from the index’s peak in July 2000, despite a rather severe recession in the meantime.

Looking at gross domestic product, real-goods production as a share of real (inflation-adjusted) GDP is close to its all-time high. In the first quarter of 2003 — the latest data available — real-goods production was 39.2 percent of real GDP. The highest annual figure ever recorded was 40 percent in 2000. By contrast, in the “good old days” of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the U.S. actually produced far fewer goods as a share of total output. The highest figure recorded in the 1940s was 35.5 percent in 1943; the highest in the 1950s was 34.9 percent in 1953; and the highest in the 1960s was 33.6 percent in 1966.

In short, manufacturing output is very healthy. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that we are becoming a nation of “hamburger flippers.” We are producing more “things” than we have in almost every year of our history for which we have data. The decline in employment is, in effect, a good thing, because it means that manufacturing productivity is very high. That is also a good thing, because it means that employers can afford to pay high wages to manufacturing workers while still competing with low-wage workers in places like Mexico and China.

Remember, what really matters for employers is not absolute wages, but unit labor costs — how much the labor costs to manufacture a given product. If a U.S. worker is five times as productive as a Mexican worker making one-fifth as much, they are exactly equal from the point of view of a producer.

The best measure of comparative productivity levels is real GDP per employed person. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2002 the U.S. continued to lead the world in this category. All U.S. workers produced $71,600 in output each (in 1999 dollars). The next highest country was Belgium, where each worker produced $64,100. Japanese workers — renowned for their productivity — produced just $51,600. Korean workers produced even less: $34,600 each. (There’s no data for China or Mexico, but both are probably far below Korea in terms of productivity.)

It is also important to note that virtually every other major country has seen declines in manufacturing employment. Between 1992 and 2002, U.S. manufacturing employment fell by 3.7 percentage points. In Britain, it fell 4.7 percent, in Japan it fell 5.2 percent, and in Germany it fell 6.1 percent. Only Canada and Italy showed any increase over this period.

Finally, it is important to note that much of what is going on here is not “real” in some sense, but definitional changes in job classifications. It used to be that big companies tended to do everything in-house, so people like janitors and accountants were classified as “manufacturing” workers simply because they worked for manufacturing companies. Over the years, such companies discovered that it was more economical to contract out such work. That is why “business services” is one of the fastest-rising categories of employment in the U.S..

Stanford economist Robert Hall recently told the Senate Finance Committee, “There is no sign in the data on output of the onset of chronic ill health in manufacturing.” All the hand wringing is simply unjustified by careful analysis.

TOPICS: Business/Economy
KEYWORDS: brucebartlett; freetrade; leftwingactivists; manufacturing; skyfallingjobs
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To: bert
Don't dis McDonalds. It is important to the American way.

And Americas employment future

61 posted on 08/19/2003 10:19:44 AM PDT by clamper1797 (Conservative by nature ... Republican in Spirit ... Patriot by Heart ... and Anti Liberal BY GOD)
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To: hole_n_one
LOL! Not that I do now, but I'll never eat a Mickey'ds again.
62 posted on 08/19/2003 10:21:29 AM PDT by OXENinFLA
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To: B-Chan
I mean, as long as we're writing science fiction here

What science fiction? The past two centuries have seen living standards increase by 2.5% average per year, or ten-fold per century.

It's science fact that the world is getting better thanks to technology -- more food, more health, higher living standards. The only thing that can stop progress is a political ideology which hates business and technology and embraces political solutions (ie, more government regulation and repression and a bigger welfare state) as the mechanism for change.

That kind of 'political science fiction' was practiced in the Soviet Union, and it's history, man. Now, stop standing in the way of progress!

63 posted on 08/19/2003 11:26:49 AM PDT by JoeSchem
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To: dr_who_2
I read an article here yesterday about manufactured raw diamond industry in America which will rival S. Africa and gives way to new IT technologies... take the basic styraphome cup and shoe industries to China, and make room for diamonds.
64 posted on 08/19/2003 11:31:10 AM PDT by Porterville (I hate anything and anyone that would attack the things that I love...)
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To: JoeSchem
I notice you didn't address the actual point I made: in a world where machines can produce an abundance of goods without need for human labor, what incentive will the controllers of these miracle machines have to keep the rest of humanity alive?
65 posted on 08/19/2003 12:41:09 PM PDT by B-Chan (Catholic. Monarchist. Texan. Any questions?)
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To: Porterville
Yeah, read a similar article. Good stuff. Can't wait for diamond based microprocessors. Well, I may have to wait, but a neat development.
66 posted on 08/19/2003 4:59:28 PM PDT by dr_who_2
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To: Porterville
...On the other hand, one of the methods discussed originated in Russia. If an industry develops here, the U.S. won't necessarily have the advantage for a long time. But deBeers is scared as hell, which is good.
67 posted on 08/19/2003 5:01:40 PM PDT by dr_who_2
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To: anniegetyourgun
I dunno.
68 posted on 08/19/2003 5:03:55 PM PDT by dr_who_2
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