When policymakers get manufacturing wrong: a case study in petty politics

By Bart Taylor | Mar 18, 2019

Ever notice how media voices most quick to condemn bias are often those with the sharpest ax to grind?

But the selective use of facts or intentional misrepresentation of opinion isn't the unique domain of media personalities. We're all guilty to a degree. We're all selling something.

Take Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former California Assemblyman. In a Forbes column entitled "Trump's Policy 'Magic Wand' Boosts Manufacturing Jobs 399% In First 26 Months Over Obama's Last 26," DeVore wasn't satisfied selling the virtues of President Trump's manufacturing economy. His mission was to throw President Obama under the bus as well. It turned out poorly.

DeVore got right to it. In his third sentence he declared, "President Obama notably said in June 2016 that manufacturing jobs 'are just not going to come back.' He said this at a time when manufacturing job growth had flatlined, falling by 31,000 from January of 2016 to when he delivered his pessimistic comments in June of that year."

That's not actually what Obama said in the interview DeVore cites. He said, "Some of those jobs of the past . . . are just not going to come back," drawing a distinction between the types of job being created today, and some of those that were offshored.

The Obama interview, or "town hall", that DeVore references is worth watching in its entirety. Obama is bullish on American manufacturing, if realistic, including the challenge of retraining the next generation of factory workers. "The days when just being willing to work hard, and just walk into a plant, and suddenly there's going to be job for you for 30 or 40 years, that's just not going to be there for our kids," Obama said. "If you go into that factory," he continued, "that kid is going to have to know computers, some science and math; they're not going to be picking anything up, they're going to be working on a keyboard."

DeVore would have served the interests of the Texas Public Policy Foundation by writing in support of Obama's message. Today finding qualified employees is manufacturing's most pressing challenge. In the nearly three years since the former president spoke these words, his workforce assessment has been borne out. Should we expect Trump to be a visionary with respect to workforce training? Maybe not. Which leaves a vacuum for supporters like Chuck DeVore to step in and do that vision thing for him.

DeVore's not up to the task. In his zero-sum game, Trump's a winner, Obama's a loser. It's better to diminish manufacturing's resurgence under Obama and ignore his prescient remarks that both capture the sector's challenges and size up manufacturing's emerging star power.

"The good news," Obama said, "is that there are entire new industries that are starting to pop up, and you're actually seeing some manufacturers starting to come back to the United States because they're starting to realize that you know what, energy prices are lower here, workers are better here, this is our biggest market, and even though we offshored and went other places before, now, it turns out, we're better off going ahead and manufacturing here."

These are hardly "pessimistic" comments.

Sure, President Obama missed opportunities to support the sector while in office. Lowering the corporate tax rate has helped manufacturers, and most would argue that pressuring America's economic competitors relating to unfair trade practices was long overdue. Yet he was also a proven advocate, driving dollars into programs like the NIST-sponsored MEP network and technology centers around the U.S. expressly purposed to support domestic manufacturing.

As an otherwise esteemed policymaker, Chuck DeVore should understand that bipartisan support is a preequisite to a full-throated promotion of the sector -- and that both adminstrations seem to have grasped the importance of manufacturing. Until that's his message, he's an anchor, not an advocate.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.