07/25/2014 03:22 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

Is What I Saw in Detroit America's Future?


In Detroit, it's come down to matters of basic survival: keeping the water turned on, providing basic public services, determining which blocks to raze and which to save. These are decisions no one should have to make. I was in town for Netroots Nation 2014, held last week in the Motor City, and what I saw in Detroit reminded me it doesn't have to be this way.

We should be having conversations about building on America's strengths and Detroit's strengths. And we could, if manufacturing employment, long the backbone of the American middle class and of southeastern Michigan's economy, hadn't been chopped down by about 6 million jobs over the last 15 years by policies that led to outsourcing and consumerism run amok. The shells of cities and towns like Detroit stand in testament to what happens when those jobs are lost.

And Americans get it. The economy and jobs remain top concerns for the American voter. Because here's the truth of it: Our economy will never be strong unless our leaders get behind policies that create new middle-income jobs, and fight for the jobs and the industry that we've got.

That's not to say that some of our elected officials don't get it too. Vice President Joe Biden used his keynote at Netroots to stump for a massive infrastructure spending proposal that would create thousands of construction and manufacturing jobs. Rep. Dan Kildee, who came down from former factory town Flint to speak, lamented his House colleagues' ability to say one thing and do another when it comes to American industry.

Voters, meanwhile, have called for a focus on job creation and fair trade for years. And they confirmed it again this month when we asked them some specific questions about it. The vast majority of voters -- 82 percent -- with consistency among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, say protecting American manufacturing jobs is more important than gaining access to more products from foreign markets.

But while there's not much of a gap between what voters think and what politicians say about trade during campaign season, there sure as hell is one when it comes to their priorities once they get to DC. It's why we end up with trade agreements that stray far away from what was promised (eg, TPP, KORUS). It's why we end up with a crisis situation for simply patching potholes, much less rebuilding our country. And it's why all the vaunted "crack down on China" rhetoric adds up to our record (and growing) trade deficit with that nation.

So, tell your elected officials that this is what you want to see them do, and not just say:

  1. Cut the trade deficit in goods with China in half over the next three years. This means more exports, and fewer subsidized imports from China and Japan that dislocate workers in places like Detroit. It does us little good to double exports, as President Obama stumped for during his re-election campaign, if imports rise at an even greater rate.
  2. Restore the balance of power between the industrial park and Wall Street. Financial deregulation in the late 1990s made the financial sector the master of manufacturing. That, along with the creation of CDOs and other get-rich-quick "innovations," was a huge mistake. Ensure that our small- and mid-sized manufacturers have access to affordable, patient capital.
  3. Rebuild the connection between innovation and production. Our tax dollars fund research that helps create amazing products - that are made overseas and sold back to us. We should insist that federally supported R&D is channeled into the design, engineering, and productions of goods in America. Congress should fund the plan proposed by the Obama administration to create a network of national innovation institutes.
  4. Adopt policies to boost demand. That means infrastructure investment and tax policies geared toward higher levels of production and consumption of domestic goods. Even with automation and productivity, higher demand means we'll be supporting more manufacturing jobs. Don't allow Wall Street and retailers to hijack corporate tax reform when only manufacturers face real global competition.
  5. Scrap the "strong dollar" policy that helps U.S. businessmen find cheaper hotel rooms overseas in favor of a competitively valued dollar that will boost our exports. The Institute for International Economics estimates that the dollar is overvalued, while China's and Japan's currencies are undervalued. We should insist those governments end policies that deliberately lower the value of their currencies.
  6. Adopt smart energy policies that will position the U.S. as the global leader in renewable energy equipment manufacturing and boost our emerging energy cost advantage. Exporting loads of domestic natural gas to countries that subsidize their own industries makes little sense.
  7. Encourage small-scale manufacturers to embrace "urban manufacturing," the "cloud," and additive manufacturing. This will localize manufacturing, reduce imports, and establish a new generation of makers.
  8. Rebuild our system of vocational education. Creating a seamless system of training from high school, to community college, and on to the factory floor for a new generation of manufacturing workers will boost American manufacturing's competitiveness and provide a viable career path for millions of Americans. I'm happy to see that President Obama is working toward this.

This isn't about rebuilding manufacturing the way it was in America, but rather about how we can restore American manufacturing leadership in this century.

That means we need to get smart. With the right policies manufacturing can see a new dawn not only over Detroit, but all across America. We can see renewed wealth and growth opportunities necessary to keep the American dream alive. And we'll have far fewer of those conversations about which block to raze and which block to save.