As Politicians Focus On Trade, Economists Worry About Automation

Many labor economists believe that a handful of steps could help ease the impact of automation on the U.S. manufacturing workforce.

A worker loads spools of thread at the Repreve Bottle Processing Center, part of the Unifi textile company in Yadkinville, N.C., Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. America has lost more than 7 million factory jobs since manufacturing employment peaked in 1979. Yet American factory production, minus raw materials and some other costs, more than doubled over the same span to $1.91 trillion last year, according to the Commerce Department, which uses 2009 dollars to adjust for inflation. That’s a notch below the record set on the eve of the Great Recession in 2007. And it makes U.S. manufacturers No. 2 in the world behind China.. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
A worker loads spools of thread at the Repreve Bottle Processing Center, part of the Unifi textile company in Yadkinville, N.C., Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. America has lost more than 7 million factory jobs since manufacturing employment peaked in 1979. Yet American factory production, minus raw materials and some other costs, more than doubled over the same span to $1.91 trillion last year, according to the Commerce Department, which uses 2009 dollars to adjust for inflation. That’s a notch below the record set on the eve of the Great Recession in 2007. And it makes U.S. manufacturers No. 2 in the world behind China.. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Many labor economists believe that a handful of steps could help ease the impact of automation on the U.S. manufacturing workforce.

They range from better training and education to revised tax credit programs to even an increase in public-sector jobs.

But in an era when politicians generally focus on foreign trade — and its much smaller impact on manufacturing jobs — The New York Times reports that analysts are worried about how the nation will adjust to the next wave of technological innovation in industry.

President-elect Donald Trump, for example, frequently blamed China and Mexico for the loss of American jobs on the campaign trail and ignored the effects of automation.

Trump appears unlikely to support many of the initiatives touted by those economists — especially once they reach into the realm of calls for stronger unions or an increased minimum wage.

Instead, he told a recent gathering of tech leaders that his administration would do "anything we can do to help" innovation and nominated a labor secretary who famously touted the potential of robots to replace fast-food workers.

“Just allowing the private market to automate without any support is a recipe for blaming immigrants and trade and other things, even when it’s the long impact of technology,”  Lawrence Katz, a Harvard University professor and former Clinton administration economist, told the paper.

One study last year, the Times noted, said that U.S. steel shipments remained stable even as it shed three-quarters of steelworkers in recent decades, while another analysis blamed 13 percent of manufacturing job losses on trade — and 87 percent on automation.

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