I'll be sharing a lot of pieces from the Summer issues of American Affairs on my blog in the coming weeks. It's probably my favorite issue of the quarterly so far (and that includes the issues in which my own work appeared). There are just so many great pieces on everything from automation to nationalism to Houellebecq. In a landscape of vapid and cliche media, American Affairs stands out as being actually perceptive and relevant. You owe it to yourself to subscribe.
Anyway, the gist of this piece by Rian Whitton is that the "rust belt losers should shut up about offshoring their jobs because automation is the real and unavoidable killer that they're just going to have to learn to accept and compete against" line we heard so often after the 2016 election is mostly bullshit:
"Regardless of whether the impact of robotics on U.S. employment was incrementally negative or positive, a scholarly consensus is emerging that it was dwarfed by the offshoring of jobs to China following WTO accession. Another study coauthored by Acemoglu found that competition with Chinese imports cost the United States 2.4 million manufacturing jobs between 1999 and 2011.11
In addition, the argument that robots were the main culprit in the decline of U.S. manufacturing employment is not substantiated by what was actually happening in U.S. robotics, nor is it consistent with the experience of other countries. U.S. manufacturing jobs plummeted from over 17 million in 2000—when China joined the WTO and the bipartisan consensus in favour of trade liberalization was at its strongest—to under 12 million in 2010. (The number stood at 12.7 million in 2018.) Were it the case that these losses were mainly the result of automation, why did a 33 percent loss in manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2014 coincide with a 22 percent decrease in the number of manufacturing plants? Presumably, replacing labor with capital equipment might lead to some efficiencies in the closure of brownfield sites, but these large machines still have to work somewhere.
The assumed correlation between robotics deployment and losses in manufacturing jobs becomes even more tenuous when one considers countries other than the United States. A 2015 Brookings analysis finds a small negative correlation between growth in robotics adoption and job loss. Take the United Kingdom, whose use of robotics has been paltry in comparison to other European countries, and whose manufacturing employment decreased by over 50 percent between 1993 and 2007. By contrast, Germany’s manufacturing employment decreased by less than 20 percent during the same period, despite adding significantly more robots. (Most countries lost some employment during this period due to supply chains shifting in favor of China and the developing world.) Inhibiting or simply being apathetic about capital investment and automation will not save a country’s workers from unemployment; it will more likely cause them to lose further ground in an increasingly competitive manufacturing environment."
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