Tag: organized labor

The Rumors of Manufacturing’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

“US manufacturing grows for 13th straight month” is the headline of an AP newswire story posted around noon today.  This statistic doesn’t surprise me, since I’ve been following developments in U.S. manufacturing for many years now, and have published analyses of public data that refute the myth of deindustrialization and manufacturing decline

With the exception of the recession of 08-09, when all U.S. economic sectors took a hit, U.S. manufacturing has been breaking its own record, year after year, with respect to output, value-added, profits, returns on investment, exports, and imports. U.S. factories are the world’s most prolific, accounting for 21.4% of global manufacturing value added in 2008 (China accounted for 13.4%).

But I bring the AP headline to your attention for one reason: so that you can judge for yourself who has any credibility on Capitol Hill, within the executive branch, in the media, among organized labor, in industry, in the think tank world, and within the international trade bar, as Nancy Pelosi tries to stuff a ruinous anti-China trade bill down our throats in the name of supporting our floundering manufacturing base.  Look for the columns, the op-eds, the press releases, and the floor statements between next week and November.

Who among them will continue to cite our suffering manufacturing sector as the justification for protectionism?  They should never again have any credibility.

Federal Bailout of GM Still Horribly Wrong

Our friends at The Economist magazine usually talk good sense about free trade and free markets, which makes their retrospective endorsement of the government bailout of General Motors all the more disappointing.

In a leader in the current issue, the editors write that critics of the bailout (count Cato scholars among them) owe President Obama an apology. “His takeover of GM could have gone horribly wrong, but it has not,” they opine.

The Economist argues that, in contrast to state coddling of industries in, say, France, President Obama has driven a hard bargain by requiring GM to fire top management, cut jobs, close plants, and reduce its brand names. The magazine grants that the president’s labor-union allies won special concessions that came at the expense of bondholders, but “by and large Mr. Obama has not used his stakes in GM and Chrysler for political ends.”

First, it’s a pretty low bar to say an intervention was right because it did not go horribly wrong. The editors then too quickly brush over the horrible injustice of stiffing the taxpayers of Indiana and others who bought GM bonds and should have been in line ahead of the more politically connected United Auto Workers union.

To curry favor with organized labor, President Obama put $50 billion of taxpayer resources at risk. A post-bankruptcy GM turned a profit last quarter, along with most other automakers, but it is doubtful its anticipated IPO in the next few months will raise anything like the $80 billion or more needed to return the “investment” to taxpayers.

On top of that, the bailout of GM went far beyond any valid power granted to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution, and it blatantly favored two companies over a multitude of others in the very competitive automobile market.

Remind me again who owes whom an apology?

Calling Out Trade’s Myth Makers

Organized labor’s trade “think tank” in Washington, the Economic Policy Institute, claims that currency manipulation is a major cause of the U.S. trade deficit with China, which (along with other unfair trade practices) accounted for 2.4 million American job losses between 2001 and 2008. EPI has been making similar claims for years, getting lots of media attention for its hyperbole, and providing smoke bombs for charlatan politicians to hurl into the discussion to obscure the public’s understanding of trade.   For starters, as conveyed in this new paper, I am skeptical about the relationship between currency undervaluation and the trade account.

EPI’s methodology (to use the term loosely) is not to be taken seriously, though, because it derives from a simple formula that approximates job gains from export value and job losses from import value, as though there were a straight line correlation between the jobs and trade data. It pretends that there are no jobs created when we import, and that import value is somehow an appropriate measure of job loss.

The flaws of those assumptions are many, but perhaps the easiest one to convey is that most of the value embedded in imports from China is not Chinese. (The ensuing discussion is from a forthcoming Cato paper.)

According to the results from a growing field of research, only about one-third to one-half of the value of U.S. imports from China comes from Chinese labor, material and overhead. Official U.S. import statistics—which pay no heed to the constituent value-added elements—therefore overstate the Chinese value in those imports by 100 to 200 percent, on average. The cited job loss figures are based on import values that are unequivocally overstated because one-half to two-thirds of that value are the costs of material, labor, and overhead added in other countries, including the United States.

What is seldom discussed—because they are often portrayed as victims—is that large numbers of American workers are employed precisely because of imports from China. This is the case because the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy are highly complementary. U.S. factories and workers are more likely to be collaborating with Chinese factories and workers in production of the same goods than they are to be competing directly. The proliferation of vertical integration (whereby the production process is carved up and each function performed where it is most efficient to perform that function) and transnational supply chains has joined higher-value-added U.S. manufacturing, design, and R&D activities with lower-value manufacturing and assembly operations in China. The old factory floor has broken through its walls and now spans oceans and borders.

Though the focus is typically on American workers who are displaced by competition from China, legions of American workers and their factories, offices, and laboratories would be idled without access to complementary Chinese workers in Chinese factories. Without access to lower-cost labor in places like Shenzhen, countless ideas hatched in U.S. laboratories, that became viable commercial products and support hundreds of thousands of jobs in engineering, design, marketing, logistics, retailing, finance, accounting, and manufacturing might never have made it beyond conception because the costs of production would have been deemed prohibitive for mass consumption. Just imagine if all of the components in the Apple iPod had to be manufactured and assembled in the United States. Instead of $150 per unit, the cost of production might be double or triple or quadruple that amount.

Consider how many fewer iPods Apple would have sold, how many fewer jobs iPod production, distribution, and sales would have supported, how much lower Apple’s profits (and those of the entities in its supply chains) would have been, how much lower Apple’s research and development expenditures would have been, how much smaller the markets for music and video downloads, car accessories, jogging accessories, and docking stations would be, how many fewer jobs those industries would support and the lower profits those industries would generate. Now multiply that process by the hundreds of other similarly ubiquitous devices and gadgets, computers and Blu-Rays, and every other product that is designed in the United States and assembled in China from components made in the United States and elsewhere.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows characterizes the complementarity of U.S. and Chinese production sharing as following the shape of a “Smiley Curve” plotted on a chart where the production process from start to finish is measured along the horizontal axis and the value of each stage of production is measured on the vertical axis. U.S. value added comes at the early stages—in branding, product conception, engineering, and design. Chinese value added operations occupy the middle stages—some engineering, some manufacturing and assembly, primarily. And more U.S. value added occurs at the end stages in logistics, retailing, and after market servicing. Under this typical production arrangement, collaboration, not competition, is what links U.S. and Chinese workers.

EPI’s work on this subject provides fodder for sensational stump speeches. But it is also a major disservice to a public that is hungering for truth, and not self-serving advocacy masquerading as truth.

Unions Fading in Private Sector But Not in Government

At the end of last week, the Labor Department reported that the share of private-sector workers who belong to labor unions fell to its lowest level in more than a century.

In 2009, the “union density” in the private sector fell to 7.2 percent, the lowest it has been since 1900. The recession caused the number of private-sector union members to fall by 10 percent last year, with the heaviest losses in manufacturing and construction.

Not surprisingly, union membership held steady in the public sector, with the share of government workers belonging to unions actually inching up to 37.4 percent. Unionization is more viable in the public sector because the additional costs imposed by unions can be passed along to captive taxpayers.

The economics of unionization are much different in the private sector, as I argue in an article in the latest issue of the Cato Journal now available online. In a competitive market, producers cannot pass the costs of unionization on to consumers without the real risk of losing market share to non-unionized rivals. This is a major, self-serving reason why organized labor typically opposes competition-enhancing trade agreements with other countries. (See the chart below from my Cato Journal article.)

The drop in union members was also another piece of bad news for the Democratic Party last week. As labor unions have become relatively more important as a constituency within the Democratic Party, they have become increasingly irrelevant in the private economy. Unions will find it more and more difficult to generate the funds for their political activities if the number of dues-paying members continues to slide.

The Tire Tariff and the Invertebrate President: A Fable

Anyone still inclined to minimize the meaning of President Obama’s Chinese tire tariff decision should read George Will’s column today.

It is not only the direct costs of this particular decision, which are numerous and tallied in the article (and in this paper), that should concern us. Will’s bigger concern is the foreshadowing of more protectionism from a president who has proven to have no qualms about looking straight into other people’s eyes and claiming that his administration opposes protectionism, favors free trade, and is working to advance pending trade agreements through Congress, all while remaining “invertebrate as he invariably is when organized labor barks.”

Is this a sign of schizophrenia? No, it’s worse. What we have here is a president who views trade policy as nothing more than a tool to advance his own political standing with groups that are hostile to commerce. Since groups on the left have grown disenchanted that some of the most socialist elements of the health care debate might be left on the cutting room floor, why not try to placate them with anti-business, anti-consumer, anti-globalization protectionism? Will makes the link between tire tariffs and the health care debate in his concluding sentence.

A president who fancies himself economically enlightened and internationalist would treat trade policy as a means to promoting economic growth and sound foreign relations. This president, regrettably, views trade policy as a sacrificial pawn in the service of politics as usual.

Are Democrats Serious about Immigration Reform?

President Obama is meeting today with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to talk about reforming our broken immigration system. The challenge for both parties will be whether they can overcome opposition within their respective bases to expanding legal immigration.

For Republicans, the chief opposition remains the faction of talk-radio-driven conservatives who just don’t like immigration, period, especially when it comes from Latin America. For Democrats, who now run Washington, the chief opposition to allowing more foreign workers to enter the country legally is represented by organized labor.

As the Wall Street Journal reports this morning, advocates of immigration reform “worry that Democrats will defer to the AFL-CIO on the issue of legal immigration. The labor confederation has opposed a robust guest-worker program or higher levels of legal immigration, fearing they would depress wages. A larger labor presence would splinter the coalition of business and pro-immigration groups that embraced past immigration efforts, only to see them falter in the Senate.”

As I’ve argued consistently in the past, immigration reform is not worth pursuing if it does not include expanding future flows of legal immigrants, both highly skilled and lower-skilled workers.  If Congress confines itself to legalizing the 8 million or so workers already here illegally, with a vow to get tougher on enforcement, then we are just repeating the mistake of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

We will know if President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress are serious about fixing the problem of illegal immigration if they face down their labor-union allies and embrace a workable, market-oriented expansion of legal immigration. Otherwise, we are in for more futility, frustration and failure.