What if Public Policy Changes Are Not Enough?

Dec. 10, 2011
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.

About the Author

Patricia Panchak | Patricia Panchak, Former Editor-in-Chief

Focus: Competitiveness & Public Policy

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In her commentary and reporting for IndustryWeek, Editor-in-Chief Patricia Panchak covers world-class manufacturing industry strategies, best practices and public policy issues that affect manufacturers’ competitiveness. She delivers news and analysis—and reports the trends--in tax, trade and labor policy; federal, state and local government agencies and programs; and judicial, executive and legislative actions. As well, she shares case studies about how manufacturing executives can capitalize on the latest best practices to cut costs, boost productivity and increase profits.

As editor, she directs the strategic development of all IW editorial products, including the magazine, IndustryWeek.com, research and information products, and executive conferences.

An award-winning editor, Panchak received the 2004 Jesse H. Neal Business Journalism Award for Signed Commentary and helped her staff earn the 2004 Neal Award for Subject-Related Series. She also has earned the American Business Media’s Midwest Award for Editorial Courage and Integrity.

Patricia holds bachelor’s degrees in Journalism and English from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in Journalism from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She lives in Cleveland Hts., Ohio, with her family.  

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