The Manufacturers Agenda

What if Public Policy Changes Are Not Enough?

An important question -- and its answer -- reveal potential shortcomings in our approach to strengthening U.S. manufacturing.

Since returning to IndustryWeek barely two months ago, I've participated in several discussions and read numerous reports about how manufacturing's recent resurgence holds great promise for the U.S. economy -- if only we get the policy right. I'm impressed by the unprecedented effort, but I'm getting the nagging feeling that something is missing, that maybe we're not doing enough.

The forums, summits and reports addressing this issue seem to have united thought leaders from every corner of business, research, academia and government in common cause. In spite of the variety of voices, the conversation follows a familiar course. It begins with an analysis of the economic statistics, followed by a summary of what makes manufacturing unique in its ability to drive overall economic growth. It proceeds to a description of the sector's relative strengths and weaknesses and concludes with a general agreement that changes to public policy are required to strengthen the manufacturing sector.

The process also has led to general agreement about the policy prescriptions.

To drive manufacturing growth, we must remove impediments that reduce U.S. manufacturers' global competitiveness -- a list too long to enumerate here but that generally calls for lower corporate taxes, more free-trade deals, fewer regulations, etc.

Beneath the surface of these efforts, however, lingers an uncomfortable question: "But does anyone really believe the U.S. manufacturing sector is going to grow substantially?"

The response to this question is telling. I sense even manufacturing's most ardent supporters have doubts. We all understand historic economic trends suggest manufacturing's recent resurgence may not be the renaissance we want it to be.

Those trends show manufacturing has been nothing less than phenomenally consistent. Except for setbacks during recessions, they plot a steady march in the same general direction over the past 50 years: consistently rising productivity and output with a steady reduction in employment.

Just like the agriculture sector.

That we are unable to imagine what we mean when we say we want a strong U.S. manufacturing sector is troubling. That the alternative appears so vivid that it appears inevitable is frightening. It also begs other questions: If we don't know where we're going with these policy changes, how are we going to know when we get there? If we can't imagine manufacturing growing, what's the point of the policy-changing exercise?

This leads me to believe we need to cultivate a new vision of manufacturing. One that, when we're asked whether we really believe U.S. manufacturing will grow, we not only can answer "yes," we will vividly imagine it.

I think the vision -- and the challenge -- should be to grow U.S. manufacturing so it delivers a greater percentage of U.S. GDP, creates more companies and facilities and employs more people.

Only with such growth can we conclude the United States is experiencing a manufacturing renaissance.

Pat Panchak is Editor-in-Chief of IndustryWeek.

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