Does it bother anyone else that the president of the United States seems to believe that our collective future entails assembling battery parts in a government-subsidized factory for $9 an hour? Is that really what Americans envision for their kids—an assembly line? Because when you look past Barack Obama's mesmerizingly hollow rhetoric, what he's proposing is a return of jobs that progress and prosperity have left behind.
In his State of the Union speech, the president laid out a vision that we've heard countless times. In his world, billionaires and their high-powered accountants are sticking it to the middle class. It's a place where wealth is static and one person's success always diminishes another's fortunes. The president explained that "it's not a bigger government we need but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."
Many news accounts of the SOTU focused on the first part of the president's contention, not the second. "Set our priorities"? So Washington is not only regulating safety and keeping an eye on big banks and making things fairer but also planning the economy now? Seems like an awfully outmoded way to approach a dynamic and unpredictable world.
What are Obama's priorities, anyway? The president proposes that politicians set up "manufacturing hubs" to assist the private sector in "restoring" and "bringing back" low-paying manufacturing jobs. And who better to create centers of inefficient production and unsustainable boondoggles than an institution that spends $1 trillion more than it brings in every year? Can't think of anyone.
The president, a man who once lamented the rise of job-killing ATMs, mentioned manufacturing eight times in his speech. But these jobs never "left" (they were phased out), and one hopes they never come back. America is producing about 80 percent more than it did 30 years ago with nearly 8 million fewer workers needed. Technological advances and a boom in productivity have not only made life more tolerable for the average American worker, opening up far better opportunities for them, but also been a godsend to consumers.
Yet there he was, praising companies for "bringing back" jobs from Mexico. Aren't we lucky. And now he's on a Ross Perot-style "Made in America" tour, framing green energy companies—which struggle to constitute a sliver of the economy without help—as the future. Obama should heed Paul Krugman, who once explained in his book Pop Internationalism that "international trade is much more a matter of (usually) mutually beneficial exchange than it is of competition and rivalry." Protectionism might be politically beneficial, but economists—as Obama likes to say—see very little real-world advantage.
Even if we concede for argument's sake that luring back outmoded jobs to the United States is smart economic policy, how does the president propose to make the United States more attractive to these companies? By making labor more expensive through Obamacare and piling on an unprecedented number of regulations, raising taxes, making energy more expensive and, just in case anyone was still interested, instituting a $9 minimum wage to ensure that any teen interested in working his way through college will never find a job, that's how.
But the problem isn't a lack of manufacturing jobs. It's that, by almost every measure, the entrepreneurial class is shrinking in America. Democrats may romanticize massive collective national efforts of the past, but individual risk and unexpected innovation are what change the world. The last thing we need is another crony "manufacturing hub."