Politicians Shoot At Wrong Target

By on April 27th, 2017

Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Politicians Shoot At Wrong Target

April 28, 2017 

Some targets are easier to shoot at— but if you shoot at the wrong target you will never produce positive results.   It has also been said that for every complex problem there is a simple and WRONG solution.  It is much easier to beat up on China for “stealing American jobs,” than it is to address the stark reality that technology, robots and automation is a lager culprit.

As an NPR report recently documented, “Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric was great politics during the campaign.  But the hard truth is that getting those jobs back from China just won’t happen — indeed, China isn’t primarily responsible for manufacturing job losses in recent years.”


While bashing China has proven valuable for mining American votes, it will not restore American, low skill, high wage manufacturing jobs.  Industrial robots alone have eliminated up to 670,000 American jobs between 1990 and 2007, according to recent research from MIT.  Last year China invested a record $45 billion in the U.S.  Does it seem easier to blame China, than to blame our own U.S. technology for creating robots that replace people in American and global jobs?

Easier- But Wrong Target

Candidate Trump trumpeted he would he would bring back blue-collar factory jobs by clamping down on trade, offshoring and immigration.  But economists and reality inform us the bigger threat to their jobs has been something else: technology and automation.  This is not to say that offshoring, globalization and trade have not been responsible for some job loss in America ( particularly trade with China during the 2000s), because it has hurt. Research by MIT demonstrates China trade led to the rapid loss of 2 million to 2.4 million net jobs during this period.


The first step in problem solving is to identify the problem.  To address the blight of workers displaced by global change we must assure our national leaders are focused on the right problem.  According to a study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, 85 per cent of manufacturing jobs losses are actually attributable to technological change — largely automation — rather than global trade. 

This report also found that although there has been a steep decline in factory jobs, the manufacturing sector has become more productive and industrial output has been growing.  “Simply put, we are producing more with fewer people,” notes Mireya Solís, a senior fellow at Brookings.  She continues, “Automation has transformed the American factory, rendering millions of low-skilled jobs redundant. Fast-spreading technologies like robotics and 3D printing will exacerbate this trend.”


We need to be challenging our elected leaders to level with the American workers that picking fights and starting trade wars with China, Mexico or any other country is not addressing the transformational, technological change taking place.  Placing tariffs on international goods will make the goods American families want and need more expensive—it will not bring back their jobs. What we need to demand President Trump addresses is the tectonic shift to a digital economy where technology, automation and robots will rule.

In a recent New York Times Op-ed: “Go East, Young American,” Suketu Meta drives home this point, “But American jobs are disappearing not because they’re moving to Mexico or China; it’s because they are increasingly being done by robots. What we need is not tariffs, but training.”


Truth Tellers Here At Home

In a recent Bridge Magazine article proclaiming, “The world is changing,” Jim Brooks, chairman of the Holland-Zeeland Model Community Initiatives—a group of West Michigan business, education, government and community leaders—reinforces the need for real change in how we prepare students and workers for their future (and not the past).  Computers, automation, communication technology and global integration of economic markets are changing the workplace skills that business, government and nonprofit employers require to compete effectively in the 21st Century.

“We believe these global forces are the root causes of increased unemployment among low and unskilled labor.  They are shrinking the American middle class and increasing the number of families living in poverty with few resources to support their children.”


Michigan Future, whose mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy, has been telling us for some time that “it is time to get real about automation and the future of work.” 

They dramatize their point with these facts: At its height, the (Ford) Rouge Complex (where I worked my way through college) employed more than 100,000 workers.  Today, it employs about 6,000 people because much of the work of modern auto assembly is done by robots. Because of automation, General Motors’ assembly plants in metro Lansing now employ fewer than 6,000 hourly workers, down from the 23,000 who built cars in the region as recently as 1979. If these facts are not enough to jolt those who pine for a return to the auto industry’s heyday as an employer into reality, I don’t know what is.”


If we are going to address the staggering problems that is creating this “haves” and “have nots” society, we must come to grip with reality and tilt our public policy efforts towards addressing real problems and stop tilting at windmills.

Lou Glazer, President and co-founder of Michigan Future, has been dealing with reality longer than most, and continually implores us to shift public policy and efforts toward re-establishing an economy where as the economy grows all Michigan households enjoy rising incomes.  Lou sums it up in a recent article when he says, “The policy priority needs to be re-establishing an economy where the economy grows and all Michigan households enjoy rising incomes.”


So, we can keep electing politicians at every level who blame China (or some other easy target), or we can grasp reality and address the true problems that will be an anchor to job and wealth growth in Michigan and America.  Lou Glazer has been Michigan’s Paul Revere, warning us for some time about the problems holding us back as a state and a nation.  It is about time more listen to his warning, and his suggestions for a sensible way forward.

Albert Einstein, reminded us of the following:

“Insanity is defined by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, (www.michiganfuture.org) Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s work is funded by Michigan foundations.

Tom Watkins  career cuts across the public and private sector in leadership positions, including: President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL., State Superintendent of Schools and State Mental Health Director, Michigan, China business and educational consultant and President and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. He can be emailed at: [email protected], or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins has an eclectic career in both the public and private sectors. He served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and director of the department of mental health. He has held leadership positions in higher education, business and behavioral health. Watkins has a interest and passion in all things China and has written hundreds of article on the value of this most important bilateral relationship in the world today.

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