The final presidential debate: Illusions of a return to an industrial past

The Critic Who Counts

Creative Commons/Courtesy

There was lots of talk during Monday night’s presidential debate about jobs. Ironically, the topic of the debate was foreign policy, but that’s not important — this is American politics we’re talking about here.

Mostly, the talk about jobs was focused on China — jobs going overseas to China, China “cheating” in the international economy and the controversy of investing in Chinese corporations. Americans heard all about China eating up American livelihoods and the need for a stern talking to with the bureaucrats who dictate China’s economy.

No one, not even for a second, mentioned that maybe these jobs are leaving American shores for good.

Because the reality is: Most manufacturing jobs have left this country forever. The American people as a whole are too educated to accept a dollar a day, and the Chinese and other low-wage countries are all too willing to dive into the cauldron of industrialization.

And did anyone mention that the real reason industrial jobs are leaving in the first place is because Americans like cheap stuff? Nope.

When President Obama talked about setting tariffs on “cheap Chinese tires,” he acted like it was a heroic act of patriotism rather than one less gallon of milk on every American’s grocery list. The Peterson Institute for International Economics reports that Obama’s actions saved at most 1,200 jobs. Is it really worth every American paying more for their tires to save 1,200 jobs? Couldn’t the government just help get 1,200 Rust Belt laborers new jobs? And isn’t that exactly what the Rust Belt needs anyway?

I don’t know about the rest of the country, but I like cheap tires.

Mitt Romney, the purported economic savant, doesn’t seem to get it either. In the previous debate, Romney said he would “crack down on China,” as if the problem were really China and not us.

It’s like politicians never took Econ 1 – day one, lecture one, lesson one: Trade is good. Trade helps people afford things they couldn’t afford before, trade helps nations go places they could never dream of and trade helps cultures interact.

Of course, changing roles in the international economy as the United States is now doing is never easy. It involves people losing jobs, as Americans know all too well, and things looking bleak before they look bright. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong transition to make.

It’s the responsibility of the U.S. government to ease the pain of the transition — send the tire workers back to school on the nation’s tab; turn rusting old factories into parks, civic centers and housing developments; subsidize development of cutting-edge employment in computers, green technology and space exploration.

The move from industrial machine to developer of ideas and innovation doesn’t have to be painful — the change can be as smooth as America’s leaders choose to make it. But first, both Democrats and Republicans alike need to forget the 1950s and wake up to 2012 — the United States is a new kind of economy. The forces of globalization are not to be reckoned with, and if the next president attempts to play chicken with the evolving world economy, this country could end up getting run over by China, India and other burgeoning business-friendly nations.

This country needs education, it needs innovation and it needs jobs.

Just not the kind of jobs you might expect.

Image Source: Bob Jagendorf via Creative Commons

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected]