Baltimore’s Unrest: A Manufacturing Crisis?

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John Angelos is right. Yes, American manufacturing jobs are being lost. But that issue is not limited to America.

I love spring. I especially love spring in Baltimore, where I did my undergrad, too. For one, it meant the end of the semester for all of us at Loyola. All the studying and hard work paid off, and summer was around the corner. It also meant baseball. Yes, even as a Yankees fan, the Baltimore Orioles grew on me. As students we could get tickets on Fridays for $5 and sit up in the cheap-seats, but it was always a great time, with great view, and with great people.

This week I was saddened to learn that springtime, a time marked by the start of baseball season, was disrupted. My Jesuit upbringing has taught me that justice requires those destroying property and endangering the lives of others to be held accountable, but it also requires that those who have abused their authority to be held accountable too. It’s a sad state of affairs. And caught in the middle of all this is baseball, America’s pastime, which was overshadowed by events that remind us that our nation’s past isn’t so easily buried.

Buck Showalter and the dugout have pretty much kept to themselves. But in response to a Baltimore sports broadcaster’s complaints that the protests were now negatively affecting the daily lives of other citizens, John Angelos, son of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, and Chief Operating Officer of the team, took to Twitter to defend the protests, delivering a passionate reply that caught the Internet’s attention and went viral. You should read the whole thing, but I’ve managed to find a connection between this sad state of affairs and international relations:

That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

A good chunk of those “middle class and working class jobs” being “shipped away” that Angelos is referencing are manufacturing jobs. A popular case study for Baltimore in particular is the Bethlehem Steel mill, once a booming sector and proud employer of many residents of Baltimore. No more though, but not for the reasons you would think if you read Angelos’ words.

A case can be made that free trade policies are partially responsible for some job losses cited in Angelos’ argument. But the larger, less sexy explanation is that it’s also a phenomenon driven by better technology and increased productivity and automation, which also leads to a decline in manufacturing jobs across the board, not just in the U.S. The decline in U.S. manufacturing as share of GDP between the 1970s and today is part of a larger global phenomenon, and it’s one I touched on in an earlier post. But here’s a nice graph with some examples:

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That’s only a small piece of the pie. If you want to take a look at the whole thing, go here for the raw data.

The trend is pretty clear. Australia’s manufacturing/GDP ratio went from 22% to 9.3% between 1970 and 2010. Brazil’s went from 24.5% to 13.5% in the same period. Canada’s dropped roughly 9%. Even the “industrious” Germans went from a little over 30% down to 18%, and Japan’s from 35% to 20%. China is no exception to this. As its economy goes through a fundamental restructuring from a heavily export-based economy to one slightly more geared towards domestic consumption, manufacturing as a % of GDP is also beginning to fall in China, along with manufacturing employment.

So is Angelos missing the forest for the trees, aside from the fact that globalization is a big reason why the Orioles have been able to get some pretty good players from other countries? That said, the snippet that I highlighted and italicized in the beginning is a popular narrative, and it’s a narrative that is getting even more attention with the heated debate surrounding the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement between 12 countries that account for 40% of global GDP, including the U.S. and Japan but not including China. As the chief negotiator for foreign relations, the Executive Branch negotiates these agreements, but Congress must ultimately sign off on any foreign trade agreement. In the past, the Congress has granted presidents “trade promotion authority” (TPA), also known as “fast track,” which would give presidents the authority to place trade agreements before Congress for a simple up-or-down vote (no filibusters or adding amendments to the deal). Will the Congress let TPP happen? President Obama is doubling down on it, so he’s certainly determined to make it part of his Administration’s legacy, even if it fails. But don’t expect opponents or proponents of this to go down without a good fight. For more information on TPP, check out this backgrounder. And while you’re at it, pray for Baltimore. I can promise I’ll be rooting for the city extra hard this season.