Owen, the retired engineer, is equally impassioned. “We’ve become more of a service economy,” he laments. “We send things out here and there [to be produced] and never understand how to manufacture the whole product; we just assemble it. In the long run, that’s not good for our business health.”
Americans are closely split on the nation’s current standing in the race to control the “manufacturing industries of the 21st century.” Almost half (49 percent) said that the U.S. stands ahead of most other countries in that competition, but 47 percent said it has fallen behind. Those polled were more optimistic about the nation’s ability to improve its position in manufacturing going forward: Contrary to some studies that expect China to take the lead, just over two-thirds of respondents said they believe the U.S. can remain the world’s largest manufacturer. Gordon, the Virginia computer programmer, was one of several who expressed hope that renewable energy, which now generates only a tiny fraction of America’s factory jobs, could generate a manufacturing renaissance. “With the green ideals we have, I think we have an opportunity … to have a whole science and technology revolution, like the Industrial Revolution,” she says.
Although that opportunity glimmers, when poll respondents were asked why manufacturing jobs have declined, they pointed a clear finger of blame at employers. Fully 58 percent said that the principal reason for the erosion was that “U.S. companies have shifted jobs overseas to take advantage of lower labor costs to achieve higher profits.” That response dwarfed the percentage of those who chose any other option, including new labor-saving technologies (12 percent); excessive environmental or occupational-health regulation (12 percent); U.S. consumers preferring less expensive foreign goods (10 percent); and eroding education or skills among American workers (6 percent).
Those responses captured the anxiety and ambivalence that rippled through the survey about the impact of globalization and free trade on American workers. Only about one-fifth of those in the workforce or in school said they worried that their employer might outsource their job to another country. But two-thirds said they believed that outsourcing had played a major role in the persistently high unemployment of recent years.
Those polled divided relatively closely on the impact of expanding trade, but the overall mood was worried. In the most direct question, 52 percent agreed that “international trade has been bad for the U.S. economy because imports from abroad have reduced demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products,” while 43 percent said that trade has “been good for the economy because demand for U.S. products abroad has resulted in economic growth and jobs for Americans here at home and provided more choice for consumers.” That question produced a sharp class skew. Those with lower incomes or lacking college degrees saw international trade mostly as a negative force; the more affluent and better-educated viewed it positively.
The country divided in similar proportions and along similar lines over whether the development of well-paying jobs in other nations was mostly a threat because it means those countries were winning jobs that might otherwise be located here (51 percent), or mostly an opportunity because it created more customers for American exports (42 percent).
A BEEF WITH IMPORTS
Perhaps the most dramatic expression of anxiety about globalization surfaced when 68 percent of those surveyed said they supported policies that would require a minimum percentage of all manufactured products sold in the U.S. to be produced or assembled here; only 27 percent opposed that idea. Such “domestic content” requirements haven’t been seriously debated in U.S. politics since the 1980s.
The strong support for that idea captured a powerful, almost visceral, belief among many of those surveyed that America has lost something important by relying so heavily on foreign products. “I was buying hamburger meat in Target the other day, and it said ‘Product of U.S., Mexico, and Canada,’ ” recalled Lomas, the Florida teacher. “And I was thinking, come on! Why do we have to go to other countries for that? Something as basic as hamburger meat—we can make that here.”
Scherer feels the same way about cars and steel, the raw materials that did so much to build the American middle class in the last century. “The U.S. could look inward and instead of importing cheap Chinese steel, I’m sure that’s something we could do here, bring it back to the U.S. and bolster our workforce,” he said. “Why can’t we produce whatever we need here?”
Most economists would answer him by pointing to British economist David Ricardo, who in the early 19th century postulated the theory of comparative advantage in trade. In Ricardo’s spirit, the survey did indicate that even amid all of their worry about trade, Americans are less interested in walling ourselves off from the world than in bolstering our ability to compete with it.