There’s a lot that we’ll regret about the 2016 presidential election and how it has been conducted, and I say that even before we start tallying up the votes. Among other things, we’ll regret the coarsening of our political rhetoric, the divisiveness along lines of race, gender and age, and the erosion of respect for our small-d democratic institutions and principles.
We should also regret it as a lost opportunity. Instead of taking an honest look at the modern world, we have wasted an entire election cycle rehashing the same social, economic and foreign policy battles that we’ve been fighting the past 30 or 40 years, in terms that Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale would have recognized. This is not their world any longer.
In fact, it’s no wonder the millenials are appalled by what they’re seeing. The diversity issues that have become this election’s emotional focal point have little or no relevance to them, because they accept as a given what many of their elders still treat as a point of contention. Mass deportation of their friends and classmates is an impossibility. Having come of age in the post-9/11 world, they are unburdened by a Cold War mindset and in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen first-hand that military dominance isn’t the answer to every foreign policy problem. To them, climate change isn’t a question, it’s their inheritance.
Overall, their boomer parents and grandparents might as well be arguing over the merits of the Spanish-American War.
Take the issue of jobs, supposedly one of the major themes of this campaign. “We don’t make things anymore,” wails Donald Trump, an assessment echoed on the left by Bernie Sanders and that Hillary Clinton has also attempted to co-opt. To varying degrees, they all blame free trade agreements for the loss of manufacturing jobs and the hollowing out of the middle class.
Yet the entire premise of that argument is wrong. Despite what you’ve heard in this campaign, U.S. manufacturing is healthy and very competitive internationally. In fact, since 1975, the output of the American manufacturing sector has almost tripled, as the inflation-adjusted index below demonstrates:
However, while the value of U.S. manufacturing has soared, the number of employees needed to produce all those goods has collapsed, declining by 7 million since the peak in 1979:
The numbers above actually underplay the scale of the shift, because they do not account for population growth. Thirty years ago, two out of every 11 working Americans were employed in manufacturing. Today, one in 13 has a manufacturing-related job. It’s just a basic fact that we are making a lot more stuff and using a lot fewer people to do so. The decline of unions, the disappearance of pensions, the dimming prospects for those without a college education — all of that flows from an historic transformation that our politics has yet to even recognize.
Last year, researchers at Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research took a look at manufacturing job losses from 2000 to 2010, which as they note was “the largest decline in manufacturing employment in U.S. history.” Their conclusion? “Almost 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing in recent years can be attributable to productivity growth, and the long-term changes to manufacturing employment are mostly linked to the productivity of American factories.”
Put another way, for every job lost overseas to free-trade agreements, we have lost seven jobs to increased productivity, a trend that shows every sign of continuing and that no change in government policy could nor should reverse. Cutting taxes for the wealthy isn’t going to address it; trying to renegotiate trade deals would probably make it worse.
The long-term economic trends are not merely redistributing the rewards of work but are redistributing work itself, and somehow we’re going to have to account for that or face even greater political disruption in the future. And as Donald Trump proved in the Republican primaries, there is no political mandate outside the conservative ivory tower for reducing the social safety net and making people even more exposed to the vagaries of an increasingly cruel market economy.
Paul Ryan and his friends may dream of their “Better Way,” but Social Security is not going to be reduced, the budgets for Medicare and Medicaid are not going to be slashed and absent an alternative capable of providing health insurance to tens of millions of otherwise uninsured, even ObamaCare isn’t going to be repealed. The world in which those may once have been realistic policy options, the world in which work and income from work was spread broadly enough to provide economic security for the vast majority, simply no longer exists.