“The present moment…is the most productive in the nation’s history”

Manufacturing retains its powerful hold on the American imagination for good reason. In the years after World War II, factory work created a broadly shared prosperity that helped make the American middle class. People without college degrees could buy a home, raise a family, buy a station wagon, take some nice vacations. It makes perfect sense that voters would want to return to those times.

From an economic perspective, however, there can be no revival of American manufacturing, because there has been no collapse. Because of automation, there are far fewer jobs in factories. But the value of stuff made in America reached a record high in the first quarter of 2016, even after adjusting for inflation. The present moment, in other words, is the most productive in the nation’s history.

Politicians of all persuasions have tried to turn back time through a wide range of programs best summarized as “throwing money at factory owners.” They offer tax credits and other incentives; some towns even build whole industrial parks, at taxpayer expense, so they can offer free space for manufacturers. By and large, those strategies haven’t helped.

Binyamin Appelbaum, “On Money”, The New York Times Magazine (9 October 2016), 22.