Real Clear Politics has collected the latest presidential approval polls; they continue to show President Bush in a highly vulnerable position as the election season begins in earnest. Fox News, CBS News and the Associated Press all have Bush’s approval rating below 50%, considered a danger signal for an incumbent. One of the few bright spots in recent polling has been the Rasmussen tracking poll, which has shown the President with as much as a six-point lead over John Kerry. At the moment, however, Rasmussen has Kerry ahead by two points. There is no current index in which President Bush scores over 50%.
Yesterday’s jobs report was another blow to the President. The economy is booming, but the only statistics that receive any media attention are those relating to jobs. The current unemployment rate is 5.6%, which is pretty good. At the same point in Bill Clinton’s first term it was 5.5%, and no one suggested that unemployment was a problem for Clinton’s re-election effort; on the contrary. When Clinton was re-elected in November 1996, the unemployment rate was 5.4%. The figure is likely to be lower when voters go to the polls in November, but the news coverage will be entirely different.
The truth is, I think, that a changing economy has made the “jobs” number with which the media are currently obsessed meaningless. The fact that there are fewer people being employed by others does not mean that there are fewer jobs. It means that more people are opting for self-employment and temporary work. This will become conventional wisdom as soon as we have a Democratic president, but there is no way that the administration can downplay the seemingly-weak “jobs” data between now and November.
The continuing decline in manufacturing jobs is no mystery, it seems to me, and is actually a good thing rather than a bad thing. One of the most obvious phenomena of human history is the declining number of people engaged in agriculture. Through most of human history, the overwhelming majority of people–almost all–had no choice but to be farmers. The reason was that agricultural productivity was so poor that it was difficult for one family’s labors to produce enough food to feed much more than itself. As agricultural productivity slowly increased, manpower was freed for other occupations; cities grew, trade increased, prosperity spread. Agricultural productivity soared, beginning in the 19th century, to the point where the number of people required to grow food is, in the United States especially, de minimis, and almost everyone is free to pursue other kinds of labor. This fact is the single greatest reason for the prosperity the world enjoys today.
The same thing is now happening in manufacturing. When manufacturing techniques were primitive, large numbers of employees were needed, just as enormous numbers of people were once needed to grow crops. As automation expands and productivity soars, fewer and fewer workers are needed in manufacturing jobs. This is good: higher output is achieved with less labor, and everyone is better off. It does mean, however, that a great many people will have to do something other than work in factories.
The transition out of manufacturing will be nowhere near as jarring as the mass movement of people off the land that occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries. The magnitude of the current shift is much smaller, and farming is a way of life in a way that working in a factory isn’t. But the reality is that, for the foreseeable future, manufacturing employment will stagnate or drop even as manufacturing output climbs steadily.
The current obsession with “outsourcing” is mostly a distraction from what is primarily going on. A free market will naturally locate some jobs in the U.S. and other jobs in India, China, or wherever. But the fundamental reality is that as time goes by, a smaller proportion of the population is needed to work in manufacturing. Democrats’ nostalgia for the days when millions of workers lined up with lunch buckets at factory gates won’t bring those times back, any more than Republican nostalgia for the family farm will cause our children to try to buy forty acres and go into the farming business.
But the election is no time for sober reflection on long-term trends, and all of the current poll data indicate that President Bush is in for rough sledding between now and November.
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