Donald Trump is the political version of a used car salesperson. He’s peddling a nostalgic dream to “Make America Great Again” to an anxious and bewildered U.S. electorate. Disillusioned workers, disenchanted white folks and dismayed right-wing republicans have embraced his sale pitch without looking under the hood or kicking the tires. And like any unsavory and predatory salesperson – intent on closing the deal with an unsuspecting buyer – Trump paints a rosy picture. So let’s fact check the sales pitch by examining a key element in his populist script of nostalgic economic patriotism: The promise to revitalize the domestic economy and create jobs by bringing manufacturing back to the United States.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the U.S. started to experience a shift in manufacturing to the global south. Industrial dismantling led to the loss of well-paying jobs, growing levels of income inequality, and a tsunami of social and political anxiety. This economic reality was supported by republican and democratic political elites who solemnly genuflected before the gospel of market fundamentalism and globalization. The end result is a complex system of offshore manufacturing supported by trade agreements, tax incentives, legal regimes, and global production/supply chains linking decentralized production sites with world markets.
Deindustrialization replaced domestic industrial ecologies with top-down decentralized global manufacturing. Yet the issue is not merely reduced to U.S. industry moving offshore. What occurred is that an ensemble of administrative/industrial systems migrated overseas and were reconfigured to meet the production and managerial needs of global firms. Globally, these systems are integrated by information technologies designed to manage dispersed industrial and administrative complexes.
In this “brave new world” of global manufacturing, the Trumpian promise to return manufacturing to the “homeland” is at best disingenuous and at worst manipulatively deceitful. It’s a complex task of monumental proportions that will not be solved by the wave of a magical wand.
Clearly, global manufacturing is geographically and logistically complicated. Consequently, reindustrialization is constrained by a complex web of overlapping and crisscrossing investment and production patterns that defy simplistic “solutions.” For example, many U.S. products contain a wide array of non-domestic components. Case in point: The iPod, a quintessential U.S. product, contains 451 components manufactured in various countries. Which brings up the question: How will Trump, in his quest to re-nationalize manufacturing, address this scale of complexity? Clearly, this is not a straight forward matter that will be resolved by a simple declaration of intent.
For now, let’s bracket the larger critique. Research has shown that recently a select number of manufacturing firms are “reshoring” to the United States, as result of lower domestic energy costs and the need to minimize high transportation costs. Nonetheless, “reshored” firms have failed to create growing levels of gainful employment. Why? Because relocated firms are investing in digital technology in order to increase productivity and slash their workforce.
Workers’ fortunate enough to find employment in “reshored” firms tend to be younger, better educated and conversant with digital technology. While displaced industrial workers tend to be older, possess lower levels of education, and lack highly needed digital skills. Therefore, even if a significant number of manufacturing firms relocated – which under current conditions is unlikely – older displaced workers will not experience a notable upgrade in their economic condition. It’s a classic scenario of one step forward and two steps backwards.
In the final analysis, during these times of national distress, slippery semantics and opportunistic omissions are unacceptable and counterproductive. Let’s not forget, we are not buying a used car. We are electing a president.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is chairperson of the Newest New Yorkers Committee of Queens Community Board 3. He has taught courses on immigration, entrepreneurship, and globalization at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, and New York University.