As you know, I believe we should create jobs for members of our extended American family by buying products produced on our shores. But increasingly, lots of things manufactured in America are made not by people, but by robots. I came across a couple of interesting articles that discuss this trend of increasing automation in the manufacturing process from a couple of angles. The first, a piece in the New York Times, discusses how the wages being paid by American firms to workers in the new automated manufacturing facilities discourage young Americans from making the educational investment necessary to run all the robots. The second piece, also from the New York Times, is a more general discussion of the societal impact of automation on manufacturing employment in general.
Both articles are very thoughtful but raise some disturbing questions. First, has the nature of manufacturing changed so profoundly over the last fifteen years that we have to rethink what is a “natural” percentage of our workforce that can expect employment in the manufacturing sector? Second, for manufacturing sectors that are less amenable to automation, how will wage differentials between America and third-world countries affect our ability to purchase American made goods. As I have said before, there are still lots of fairly labor intensive products like apparel produced in this country that are reasonably priced. Jeans are a good example. But this squeeze on manufacturing employment in America, with automation on one side and cheap offshore labor on the other, is a phenomenon that we can not ignore