The Mythical American Manufacturing Renaissance in Three Charts

I dunno what got into me, but this morning I watched CNBC at the gym and good earnings reports from Ford, GM, Boeing, and Dow fueled a lot of enthusiastic talk about an American manufacturing renaissance. I know this is something a lot of people in D.C. are excited about too. And they’re thinking about things like this chart that you see above.

But consider this chart which takes a longer view:

Nobody thought that the aughts were a period of manufacturing renaissance. That was the period of “financialization” in which all our manufacturing jobs were being shipped overseas to China. And then at the end of the aughts we had a huge recession. The entire renaissance looks to be a very partial recovery of jobs lost during the recession. Not a full recovery of those jobs, and nothing even remotely resembling a return to 1990s-levels of manufacturing employment. And the 1990s, you’ll recall, were not exactly the heyday of American manufacturing either. That was when everyone was complaining about the “giant sucking sound” from Mexico.

My last chart really drives it home, by showing manufacturing jobs as a share of all jobs:

Here we see why it seems like everyone has been complaining for decades about the decline of the manufacturing economy. It’s been steadily shrinking as a share of employment since the end of World War II. It was shrinking in the ‘50s, shrinking in the ‘60s, shrinking in the ‘70s, shrinking in the ‘80s, shrinking in the ‘90s, and shrinking in the ‘00s. Now it’s flatlining. And that’s your renaissance.