Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs? —by Jinny Batterson
Recently, a friend forwarded to me an email of guidelines for “buying USA,” comparing some everyday items, from greeting cards to toothpaste, that are marketed in the U.S. but now often made in other countries. I have no objection to buying more of the goods I use from hardworking Americans, but I do object to the thinly veiled inference that workers in China (or Mexico, or some other lower-wage country) are stealing American jobs. Wording of the message forwarded to me matches one posted by a real estate developer from near Charlotte, NC in March, 2016, as that year’s election cycle was heating up (see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ace-hardware-made-usa-very-encouraging-david-e-johnson-pe). My initial reaction to the message: Oh, rats! Here we go again, blaming job losses on low-wage workers in other parts of the world, when those workers actually play only a small part in American job losses. This mid-term election cycle, I’m concerned that both recycled and more recent posts and tweets are trying to persuade American voters that a broad trade war with China will help save American jobs.
Over the past forty years, I’ve been able to spend a fair amount of time visiting with workers in China. They don’t want to steal anyone’s job. They are just trying to improve their lives, like workers everywhere. In the 1940’s,1950’s and 1960’s, many Americans left grinding rural poverty for better manufacturing jobs in cities. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, many Chinese also left the countryside in search of better paying urban jobs. By now, Chinese wages have risen. The Chinese government is starting to tighten regulations to rein in the pollution that significantly shortens Chinese lives. Some jobs are leaving China for other countries with lower wages and/or laxer environmental rules.
After I sent a semi-coherent reply to my friend, I let a later draft sit. I needed more time to simmer down and reflect. I realized that I’m very lucky. So far, my retirement income is comfortable. I do not have to pinch pennies. I can afford to be selective in my buying habits. As much as possible, I patronize local sources. When we lived in Vermont, I made a special effort to buy cheese from our area farmers’ co-op; in Virginia, I bought a lot of local apples; here in North Carolina, I shop the local farmers’ markets; I eat ribs and barbecue at local restaurants. For less-localized items, I check labels along with prices to see where a product originated and how it was produced. Even if they’re somewhat more expensive, I will sometimes buy U.S.-made goods to help support American workers. At holidays or when buying specialty items, I often purchase “fair trade” products so that some of my coffee, chocolate, and gift purchases will help support those with the lowest wages. Overall, I try to be an informed, careful, caring consumer.
Despite all sorts of “buy from nearby” campaigns, and despite what we may want to believe about fair and unfair trade, for at least a generation the biggest cause of job losses worldwide has been the quickening pace of replacing human workers using automation. According to a Financial Times article published just after Mr. Trump’s election (https://www.ft.com/content/dec677c0-b7e6-11e6-ba85-95d1533d9a62, December 2, 2016), about 85% of U.S. manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010 were due to automation rather than to moving jobs overseas. The same article compared the average hourly wage for a human American welder ($25) with the operating cost to have a robot do the same work ($8). If you include the installation and maintenance costs for the robot, the gap narrows slightly. However, the cost difference is likely to continue growing.
Some trade agreements can damage the interests of workers and/or put at risk the natural environment that supports human life as we know it. Global trade has rarely been without its distortions and inequities. (For example, ask almost any Chinese about the British practice during the 19th century of exporting opium raised in the British colony of India into China to offset the costs of British imports of tea and porcelain, or consider the trans-Atlantic slave trade.) Negotiating worthwhile trade deals can be both time-consuming and extremely difficult—blogs or tweets alone don’t cut it.
One of my grandfathers lost his job in 1930 when the company he was working for at the time replaced their human bookkeepers with calculating machines as a cost-cutting measure. On President Herbert Hoover’s final full day in office, March 3, 1933, he signed the “Buy America Act” that had recently passed the U.S. Congress. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was not solved.
Americans suffering from job losses need assistance and encouragement rather than attempts to divert the problem onto others. Automation, used wisely, can help improve lives; used foolishly, it can devastate human workers, even entire communities. Global competition, used wisely and fairly, can help spur innovation and growth. Used foolishly, it can pit groups that have many common interests against each other.
Blaming will not solve anything. Please let’s take time together to consider the deeper issues.