Romer argues against ‘special treatment’ for U.S. manufacturing (gasp, somebody smart is wrong on the Internet!)

Oh no, the economy’s “paging Dr. Romer” feature seems to have developed a glitch. For those who don’t know, Mike Konczal suggested the “PDR” feature a while back, noting that, “Anytime someone associated with the Obama Administration, past or present, says something that is probably wrong about the economy in 2011, we break out Christina Romer saying the correct thing in early 2009.”

And it’s true that on the most important questions of the past couple of years, Romer has been admirably correct and as loud as policymakers with real influence are generally allowed to be. This makes her recent column in the New York Times that much more disappointing. The problem starts and ends with the title – which normally isn’t the author’s fault but in this case actually encapsulates her argument pretty well: “Do Manufacturers Need Special Treatment?”

She argues that recent debates about the importance of helping the manufacturing sector (started in large part by President Obama’s calls to do so in the State of the Union address) are essentially about the costs and benefits of providing this “special treatment” to manufacturing.

This is a very odd read of the current situation. The main problem facing U.S. manufacturing today is a value of the dollar that leads to mammoth trade deficits in the sector. This problem in turn stems largely from the policy of many of our important trading partners to peg the value of their currency at levels that insure very large deficits; as well as from our own policy of not doing anything about this unbalanced trade. Correcting this currency misalignment would provide large benefits to U.S. manufacturers, would reduce the foreign debt of the U.S., and would boost living standards in our trading partners. It’s not clear why calling to undertake this extremely obvious policy intervention is akin to arguing for “special treatment for manufacturers.”

And yes, it’s getting old saying this again and again. But, not as old as people debating issues of trade and manufacturing without wrestling with what is by far the most important policy angle of it.

Lastly, just as a data note, Romer repeats what is a very common canard about manufacturing employment: “Unemployment today is high, but not because of a decline in manufacturing. That decline has been going on for 30 years…”

Depends on what you mean by “decline.” Manufacturing as a share of total employment has been shrinking for decades – and this is not necessarily a terrible thing, so long as it simply reflects faster productivity growth in this sector. But, for 35 years, between 1965 and as recently as 2000, manufacturing employment never dipped below 16 million (and never got above 19.5 million), meaning that it was actually quite stable and not in obvious decline. Then, the sector lost 3 million jobs in the 2000 recession and never recovered them, largely because of subsequent very large increases in manufacturing trade deficits. The sector today employs less than 12 million workers:

Is it unreasonable to expect manufacturing to reach the share of overall employment it last attained in 1965 (27 percent – which would be 36 million jobs)? Yes. But, given a real recovery and intelligent exchange-rate policy, is it unreasonable to expect that it could reach its overall employment level of 1965 (around 16.5 million)? Not at all.

And it wouldn’t even require “special treatment.”

And look, Romer knows all of this. See? But given that no administration in recent decades has done anything about chronic dollar overvaluation – a clear policy failure – is it a shock that many have decided to try to advocate for help for manufacturing through other means? Of course not – but surely the right move here is not arguing against help for manufacturing based on a hypothetical that assumes status quo policy is mostly neutral towards the sector. Instead it’s providing those rightly concerned that current policy is damaging the the sector with the strongest arguments to end this damage.