Do we need a Manufacturing Czar?

Gérard Cachon

By Gerard Cachon, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Source: Matching Supply with Demand.

President Obama has named Ron Bloom as a special advisor to tackle the problem of declining manufacturing in the United States (see NY Times 9/10/10):

The President said “We’ve got to get back to making things.” Do we?

Here are the arguments why the decline in manufacturing is a problem:

  • Without manufacturing we won’t be able to take advantage of emerging markets in green technology “I don’t want to see new solar panels or electric cars or advanced batteries manufactured in Europe or in Asia. I want to see them made right here in the U.S. of A. by American workers” says President Obama.
  • Without manufacturing there will not be research and development in the U.S. (which are presumably higher paying).  The argument is that R&D and manufacturing have to be co-located.
  • If R&D declines because of a lack of manufacturing, then innovation will decline and innovation is the engine of productivity growth.

And what are the causes of the problem:

  • Unfair trade practices by China and others.
  • Private equity only invest in firms that manufacturer in China because the U.S. is not “where you make things”.
  • Large U.S. companies don’t want to promote domestic production because they now produce everywhere.

So what do they plan to do about the decline? Here the specifics are thin. They have ruled out subsidies. They will focus on trade diplomacy and improved export-import financing.

Unfortunately, for Mr. Bloom, I strongly suspect he will not be able to reverse the trend, nor do we want him too. But if he wanted to reverse the trend, he is not pulling the right lever.

To fix a problem requires identifying the cause. There are two reasons why manufacturing has declined in the U.S. First, although not mentioned in the article, transportation costs have declined.  If it costs a lot to move parts and finished good around, you need to do things locally. When you can start shipping and training and trucking things for cheap, your options as to where to manufacture expand. Second, things are much more modular than they use to be. Henry Ford’s designers had to be very close to the manufacturing process because I suspect design was an iterative process – design something, try to make it, redesign it, try to make that, etc. Now, computers, telecommunications and precision machinery means that for many things the design and the production can be decoupled – an Apple engineer can dream up the next Iphone in her office and send the specs over to China without fear that what she created will be costly to make.

So if the causes are cheaper transportation and let’s call it decoupled R&D, then what could be done to reverse the trend? We wouldn’t want to ban computers to prevent the former. But maybe we should make transportation more expensive. At least that would have an environmental benefit. But if it is expensive to move stuff from China to the U.S., then it is expensive to move it from the U.S. to Europe, i.e., it cuts both ways. Which brings me back to an earlier point – should we care? Our decline in manufacturing has also occurred during a period of increased productivity and standard of living. Where is the evidence that we have been hurt by the decline in domestic manufacturing?

And let’s consider the geo-politics of trying to break manufacturing ties with other countries. If we purchase nothing from China and China purchases nothing from us, will they be more or less inclined to use their military? (For that matter, how about the U.S.’ inclination to use its military.) The answer seems clear – as long as countries are linked together via trade, the world will be a safer place.

America should promote innovation and we should make things in America that make sense to make here (like cars). But we have better things to worry about than manufacturing’s declining percentage of the economy.

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One Response to Do we need a Manufacturing Czar?

  1. Gerard,

    Certainly a complex topic conveyed in a clear sense. I have done a preliminary estimate on the “cost” of production overseas (which includes higher shipping costs, albeit historically low until of late) v. the cost of production here in the US. There are vast swaths of this country that are well situated next to the world’s finest interstate highway system with a population of educated, hard working Americans. I think people forgot to look at all of the costs and instead focused in on hourly rate. When you consider the labor, the inventory investment, the unresponsiveness of your really long supply chain, and a true working class that is ready for work; I think the U.S. might hold up well against a true comparison.

    What I fear is more social engineering from the Federal Government where companies are taxed for shipping work overseas. Which they did, in part, to the manufacturing environment in the US: rapidly rising labor costs and tax/regulation. Throw in a Healthcare bill and companies will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Washington can actually make it better; but like you, I doubt it very much. I just think without Governments intervention, other than perhaps to reduce the cost of re-sourcing (bringing the jobs back) through tax deductability of the expense, businesses need to consider the totality of the impact, cost and benefit.

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