USA Today, hardly a rightwing news outlet, points out that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have it completely wrong when they attack NAFTA. That treaty is not causing the net loss of jobs, it has nothing to do with the real reasons the manufacturing landscape has changed. Rather it is productivity gains that have managed to cut manufacturing employment yet increase the total amount of US manufacturing output by a stunning 66% since 1993. Yes, this is being done with fewer workers and there are real issues. But NAFTA is not one of them.
NAFTA opponents point to the 2.4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs that have disappeared since NAFTA took effect in 1994, a drop of about 14%. In Ohio, site of Tuesday's hotly contested primary, manufacturing jobs are down by nearly 200,000, or 20%, during the same time.
NAFTA supporters — this page among them — usually respond by pointing out that 39 million jobs outside of manufacturing have been created in that time in the USA. Even Ohio has seen a net gain of 900,000 jobs, including 60,000 in finance, 80,000 in professional services and almost 190,000 in health care.
The reality is that NAFTA has relatively little to do with either the overall job losses or job gains. China is a far larger factor. But the number that best displays the nonsensical nature of the debate is 66% — the increase in the manufacturing output of American industry since 1993.
It's impossible to look at an economy that has increased its manufacturing output so dramatically while simultaneously cutting its manufacturing workforce and not see a much larger force at work than NAFTA.
That force has been the unprecedented and sweeping gains in worker productivity that have allowed U.S. companies to churn out more goods with fewer people. Some of this has come from outsourcing the most labor-intensive parts of manufacturing, particularly to Asia. But much of it is from the use of more automated systems for assembly lines and high-tech inventory management.
Put another way, the main job killer of the past 14 years has not been the "giant sucking sound" of jobs going to Mexico, as enunciated by Ross Perot. Rather it has been that giant humming sound of machines replacing humans.
USA Today points to an educational system that is failing to turn out graduates with technical skills. They are right about this, look at the trouble companies are having finding skilled machinists. They say the right ideas are to educate and retrain displaced, low-skilled workers, not to erect trade barriers.