This week, President Obama announced another one of his halting attempts at a pro-manufacturing policy, again in the form of more manufacturing institutes.
They're part of a chain of public-private partnerships the administration has developed to encourage industrial (and homegrown) R&D. One is coming to Chicago, where more than 70 partners from the private sector will collaborate with the government on digital manufacturing practices. The other, in Detroit, will pair the Department of Defense with industry giants and universities to develop lightweight metals and alloys.
On paper, these hubs are a good idea. Heck, in practice they're a good idea. Each one is insurance that America has the brains to stay competitive in the next generation of advanced industry. But let's be clear: On their own, they're not enough.
While the hope is that these hubs will incubate the next big thing -- that they'll make sure our next-generation factories are world-class -- this approach won't mean much if the fruits of that R&D don't ultimately benefit American workers. This country has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. The president wants to add one million new manufacturing jobs in his second term. What's his plan to get us there?
As any underemployed citizen of southeast Michigan will tell you, a standalone network of think tanks doesn't constitute a serious manufacturing policy -- something that our economy urgently needs and that voters want, according to recent bipartisan polling. And the president is leaving a lot of tools for creating one on the table.
For instance: He hasn't directed every wing of his government to follow the lead of the Department of Transportation and implement strict Buy America requirements in procurement decisions. And his administration has kept a frustrating and myopic focus on ramping up the number of U.S. exports, while ignoring the growing trade deficit with China that reached a record $318 billion last year.
Yet despite those shortcomings, voters don't entirely blame the president for such a piecemeal approach to manufacturing policy. As well they shouldn't: In 2014 (as it was in 2013, and '12, and '11) nothing moves in the halls of Congress save the feet of our representatives when they head home at recess. And many of the other legs of a manufacturing strategy -- like the smart infrastructure investments that American industry needs to remain competitive with highly subsidized international competition -- arrive DOA on Capitol Hill and stay that way.
In fact, all of the public funding in the growing network of manufacturing hubs was allocated by executive authority, a move the president made unilaterally in the face of Congressional shrugs. And it's a move for which he should be commended.
Detroit will make good use of its new manufacturing hub. But that city and others like it across this country need more help. When the Motor City declared bankruptcy last summer, I penned a piece titled "No More Detroits." In it I suggested eight steps our policymakers need to take to put our economy on a more sustainable path. Chief among them: immediately and publicly designating China a currency manipulator for its constant abuse of exchange rates to improve its trade surpluses. That's something President Obama has the authority to do right now, without waiting for the inevitable congressional inaction.
Will the president continue to take only modest steps to revive the manufacturing sector? Or will he go big? An innovation hub alone wouldn't save a struggling city like Detroit from bankruptcy. But a bold manufacturing strategy would. And that's exactly what the voters want.
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