Los Angeles Times

Rusty lever won’t lift U.S. economy

Trump is obsessing over mining and manufactur­ing instead of healthcare, technology and education.

- RONALD BROWNSTEIN Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at the Atlantic.

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.

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