Rusty lever won’t lift U.S. economy
Trump is obsessing over mining and manufacturing instead of healthcare, technology and education.
Donald Trump invariably presents his agenda as prioritizing the American economy over abstract ideals like global cooperation.
But that’s not accurate. Trump’s agenda just prioritizes some segments of America’s economy over others. He’s attempting to restore the primacy of industries that powered the American economy in the mid-20th century: particularly manufacturing, fossil fuel extraction, and construction. In the process, he is sublimating — if not opposing — the needs of the sectors driving growth today: information technology, professional services, clean energy, entertainment, education, tourism and healthcare.
With decisions such as last week’s blustery withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, Trump is betting on industries whose greatest contribution to American prosperity is behind them. If Democrats can resist the temptation of reflexive anti-business populism, Trump is offering them a huge opportunity — symbolized by the condemnation of his Paris accord withdrawal from leaders of cutting-edge companies including Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Tesla and GE.
When Trump talks about the economy, manufacturing and fossil fuel production usually take first billing, followed by construction — the target of this week’s infrastructure proposals. He typically cites these industries to justify imposing trade barriers, abandoning trade deals, restricting immigration and rolling back environmental regulations.
It’s far from certain Trump’s agenda will benefit these industries as uniformly as he claims. The federal International Trade Assn. has calculated that about one-fourth of manufacturing jobs are tied to exports, even more for key sectors including aerospace, computers and chemicals. If Trump’s confrontational approach to trade provokes retaliation from other nations, those exports — and the jobs they support — could be lost. Likewise, Trump’s push to unravel former President Obama’s agenda for confronting climate change may boost coal and oil production at the price of suppressing lower-carbon alternatives such as solar, wind, natural gas and nuclear power that already cumulatively employ far more people.
But even if you count Trump’s approach as an unqualified benefit for his favored industries, he’s still banking on sectors that have been shrinking for decades. The number of Americans working in manufacturing peaked in 1979, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mining employment (mostly extracting oil, gas and coal) peaked in 1982. Construction jobs haven’t fallen as sharply, but they peaked amid the housing bubble in 2006.
Measured as a share of total U.S. employment, Trump’s three favored industries have plummeted precipitously. In 1965, manufacturing, mining and construction provided about one in every three non-agricultural jobs. Today it’s fewer than one-inseven jobs.
Trump is trying to move the economy with a lever a fraction of its size 50 years ago.
Job growth is now driven by post-industrial occupations, which have much to lose from Trump’s agenda. Healthcare and education, and government at all levels, would face an employment squeeze from his desired budget cuts. Business and professional services would have benefited from intellectual-property protections and greater market access in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal Trump jettisoned and the European deal treading water. Information technology and entertainment companies share those concerns. Travel and tourism firms fear his confrontational immigration agenda (particularly his judicially blocked temporary ban on entry by citizens of six Muslimmajority nations) will depress foreign visits to the U.S.
Together these sectors account for over four times as many jobs as manufacturing, mining and construction.
By aligning so unreservedly with a “coalition of restoration,” Trump has opened the door for Democrats to assemble a “coalition of transformation” that welcomes not just demographic but also economic change. The nearly 100 companies that legally intervened against Trump’s Muslim-nation travel ban were a who’s who of American innovation; many of the same firms condemned his withdrawal from the Paris accord. All of them believe that prosperity comes from enhancing the free flow of products, people and ideas, not walling them out.
Neither party can afford to write off any region or any segment of the economy. But Trump’s narrow focus on a few traditional blue-collar industries leaves Democrats gaping openings. Trump’s agenda offers little to the growing ranks of low-paid service workers. Conversely, he is inviting Democrats to court workers in the white-collar, urbanized and increasingly globalized engines of today’s growth. Even the most manufacturingdependent states would benefit more from a forward-looking economic diversification strategy than an attempt to reverse technological advances.
Trump’s economic agenda is so focused on the past it might as well come with tail fins. In economics, as much as culture and demography, the president is ceding to Democrats the future — if they are smart enough to claim it.