By Tom Still
The second presidential debate featured more half-truths, interruptions and bickering than an episode of “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” but one frank moment may define the debate over jobs in the campaign’s closing weeks.
During an exchange over the future of manufacturing, Republican Mitt Romney stressed his belief that America can “compete with anyone in the world as long as the playing field is level.” He pledged to bring back lost jobs by ramping up exports and cracking down on unfair trade and monetary practices overseas.
President Obama countered: “There are some jobs that are not going to come back” because they are low-wage, low-skill jobs, not the high-wage, high-skill jobs America should covet.
Some analysts speculated that Obama’s candor handed Romney a potentially winning issue in swing Midwest states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, where the loss of manufacturing jobs remains a painful memory for many displaced workers. Will Romney now exploit the perception that Obama has given up on winning back blue-collar jobs that once defined the American Dream?
Perhaps Romney will try – but at the risk of promising something no politician, Republican or Democrat, can deliver.
The percentage of Americans working in the manufacturing sector has been declining for decades. From President Reagan forward, the nation has been losing manufacturing jobs to automation, other process efficiencies, foreign competition and more. In Wisconsin, about 600,000 people worked in manufacturing in early 2000 versus about 450,000 today.
While Romney is correct that more trade and sharper vigilance of American interests abroad will help U.S. competitiveness, the revolution in manufacturing that has swept this country – as well as the world – won’t be turned back. Nor should it be.
That transformation is evident in Wisconsin, a state where the percentage of private-sector workers engaged in manufacturing (roughly 18 percent) is still No. 1 in the nation. One reason the manufacturing sector in Wisconsin weathered the recession better than most is that companies here embraced change rather than resisting it.
Some of that commitment to innovation was on display recently when the Wisconsin Technology Council board of directors met at Orion Energy Systems Inc. in Manitowoc, where products such as the Apollo solar light pipe are changing how major companies such as Apple, MillerCoors, Kohler and Coca-Cola light their distribution centers.
According to Orion, which develops and sells other lighting and energy products, about 8,200 customer companies in North America have saved $1.69 billion in energy costs over time.
That’s just one example of innovation in Wisconsin manufacturing helping other manufacturers become more competitive. On this point, Romney and Obama would likely agree: American companies are rediscovering their innovative roots, and it’s beginning to pay off for the economy.
But they have disagreed, at least, in part, on how to get there. Romney has talked more about regulatory reform, tax reform, putting teeth into trade rules and protecting intellectual property while saying he will “make America the most attractive place in the world for entrepreneurs, for small business, for big business, to invest and grow…”
Obama’s approach was captured in the rest of his response about some jobs being gone for good.
“That’s why we have to invest in advanced manufacturing,” he continued. “That’s why we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got the best science and research in the world. And when we talk about deficits, if we’re adding to our deficit for tax cuts for folks who don’t need them, and we’re cutting investments in research and science that will create the next Apple, create the next new innovation that will sell products around the world, we will lose that race.”
So, where’s the common ground? Here are a few ideas that could gain bipartisan support, regardless of who wins the White House on Nov. 6.
— Make the federal R&D tax credit permanent and refundable for startup companies, which are sources of innovation. A more predictable federal will help businesses plan for research investments.
— Lower the corporate tax rate (something both candidates already endorse) and make the current system simpler.
— Negotiate and pass more Free Trade Agreements. The United States has such pacts in force with 17 countries, with agreements pending with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. Experience shows these agreements open markets to American exporters faster and with more transparency.
— Make sure today’s students know about careers in manufacturing. That includes more opportunities for apprenticeships, company visits and exchanges with school, and better career planning beginning in high school.
Yes, some manufacturing jobs are gone for good. The best are still here, however, and the nation must work together to keep them here and create more.
This column first appeared Oct. 21 in the Business section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.