Opinion

American Manufacturing Requires an Ambitious Rethink

The 2020 presidential election will be remembered for many reasons, but being a forum for serious policy debate will not be among them. The timing couldn’t have been worse; the global economy stands at a crossroads, and the American people need to understand how different policy prescriptions could advance or restrict the United States’ ambitions, particularly where it concerns manufacturing policy.

Historically, U.S. policymakers have resisted top-down industrial policy; it is often viewed as anathema to limited government and free enterprise. And yet, President Donald Trump effectively scrambled the politics of economic policy, championing populist, industrial measures that frequently targeted specific companies and countries. These measures were focused on reshoring American manufacturing jobs. In reality, many of his decisions increased costs for manufacturers and ballooned the U.S. trade deficit to 2008 levels, pre-global financial crisis.

President Joe Biden has signaled his commitment to revitalizing U.S. manufacturing. He has proposed a slew of initiatives, including a $700 billion plan to “build back better” in the wake of the pandemic. One of President Biden’s first actions in office was to announce that Jan. 25 would be “Buy American” day, where the president signed an executive order to encourage agencies to strengthen existing regulations around purchasing from domestic sources.

While restricting purchasing too narrowly and retreating behind domestic trade barriers is dangerous, it represents an early commitment from the Biden administration to find ways to build domestic manufacturing resilience. This is particularly apparent when taken together with his campaign’s comprehensive approach to domestic manufacturing, something that campaigns before his have consistently shied away from. His proposals are commendable steps in the right direction and are a solid basis for constructive engagement with Congress.

But even as Biden’s manufacturing plan includes some welcome changes, the truth is that tweaks to the status quo are insufficient: No president can hope to accomplish a complete reimagining of domestic manufacturing in a mere four or eight years.

Reinvigorating American manufacturing will require a simultaneous focus on a myriad issues, from educating and training the workforce of tomorrow, to crafting economic and regulatory incentives to building supply chains closer to home. America’s manufacturing decline took decades to become clear. Even with exciting new technologies and opportunities on the horizon, the process will be long.

To comprehensively revisit a country’s manufacturing fortune requires the type of long-term planning that American politicians struggle to align with two- and six-year election cycles. It takes a steady, consistent approach that doesn’t vacillate wildly between new administrations of different political parties. It requires a commitment to working together – an approach that American politics hasn’t been particularly interested in of late.

Plenty of countries have grasped this far more quickly than the United States. Countries across Europe have worked in unison to coordinate resources and ownership of a long-term policy plan that combines manufacturing with other political considerations, such as environmental concerns. This recognizes that manufacturing and industrial capacity are fundamentally interdisciplinary challenges that have long time horizons to accomplish.

This isn’t a call for a milquetoast, bipartisan approach to governing that avoids anything too controversial or outside the box as to ruffle feathers. In fact, an effective approach must be quite the opposite. Revisiting American manufacturing will require ambition, with various parties and stakeholders acting in harmony to pursue unique, thoughtful, and creative approaches to what our future will hold.

Thankfully, the Biden administration has a roadmap for the type of thinking and spirit needed to confront a rethink. Alongside Biden’s manufacturing executive order were many tied to climate change and infrastructure. These problems fester because political incentives rarely align in a way that supports confronting them head-on. But the cost of inaction is high and time is of the essence.

American manufacturing is no different. By applying the same level of urgency and summoning the same amount of political will as these other first 100 day priorities, the Biden administration can lay the foundation for America’s manufacturing future and re-establish American competitiveness globally. Tweaks on the margins – even welcome ones – will be fundamentally insufficient to addressing the size and scope of the problem before them.

 

John Mitchell is president and CEO of IPC, a global trade association representing the electronics manufacturing industry.  

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