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Washington Post Lies to Readers Again: Job Loss in Manufacturing Due to Trade, not Automation

March 07, 2017

The Washington Post must think that U.S. trade policy is really awful. Why else would they continually lie to their readers and claim that the cause of the sharp job loss in manufacturing in recent years was automation?

[Dean Baker| March 4, 2017 |Beat the Press]

For fans of data rather than myths, the basic story is that manufacturing has been declining as a share of total employment since 1970. However there was relatively little change in the number of jobs until the trade deficit exploded in the last decade. Here's the graph.

Manufacturing Employment

manu emplSource: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And, there was no great uptick in productivity coinciding with the plunge in employment at the start of the last decade. It would be nice if the Washington Post could discuss trade honestly. This sort of reporting gives fuel to the Donald Trumps of the world.

In this context, it is probably worth once again mentioning that the Washington Post still refuses to correct its pro-NAFTA editorial in which it made the absurd claim that Mexico's GDP quadrupled from 1987 to 2007. The actual figure was 83 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.


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  • Most of the automation and robotics that displaced American workers had been installed by the mid eighties. As an Industrial Engineer, I worked with several Fortune 500 manufacturing companies, looking for ways to reduce labor. In 1979, I saw automatic fabric spreading machines, rolling out multiple layers of fabric on 40 foot tables. Then, a computer guided cutter cut out the various fabric pieces, according to the layout of digital images by an engineer on a computer screen. The computer allowed the engineer to test various placement of the pieces, then calculated the percent usage of the fabric. Once the desired placement was achieved, the program was fed to the computer which drove the cutting table. This was a sportswear factory that made dozens of items in various sizes. There was no way to automate the actual sewing of the garments, and there still isn’t.

    In 1982, I watched a “teachable” robot painting poster sized cartoons of “Roadrunner” and ’Wiley Coyote," at a trade show. These paintings were given out to visitors as souvenirs. Later that year, I saw similar robots painting the tops of washing machines at the General Electric Appliance Park in Louisville. There have been few improvements in robotics since that time.

    Much of my experience was in the decorative lighting industry. By 1985, we had automated everything where the investment was economically justified. It was in 1985 that the industry was forced to begin importing Chinese versions of their best selling items. The Chinese could produce our products at one-third the cost, and my employer was faced with the choice of whether to remain in business as an importer, or lose its customers to importers who would go around them directly to the distributors. By 1995, that entire industry had been offshored to China, and tens of thousands of jobs were lost. All that remained were the distribution centers and a handful of people in the corporate offices.

    It is a convenient lie that American jobs have been mostly replaced by automation and robotics — but it is a lie.