Sun, Apr 23, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Not all jobs can be saved, but people’s futures can be protected

By Paul Krugman  /  NY Times News Service

US President Donald Trump is still promising to bring back coal jobs, but the underlying reasons for coal employment’s decline — automation, falling electricity demand, cheap natural gas and technological progress in wind and solar — will not go away.

Meanwhile, the US Department of the Treasury last week officially — and correctly — declined to name China as a currency manipulator, making nonsense of everything Trump has said about reviving manufacturing.

Will the Trump administration ever do anything substantive to bring back mining and manufacturing jobs? Probably not.

However, let me ask a different question: Why does public discussion of job loss focus so intensely on mining and manufacturing, while virtually ignoring the big declines in some service sectors?

Over the weekend the New York Times Magazine published a photographic essay on the decline of traditional retailers in the face of Internet competition.

The pictures, contrasting “zombie malls” largely emptied of tenants with giant warehouses holding inventory for online sellers, were striking. The economic reality is pretty striking, too.

Consider what has happened to department stores. Even as Trump was boasting about saving a few hundred jobs in manufacturing here and there, Macy’s announced plans to close 68 stores and lay off 10,000 workers.

Sears, another iconic institution, has expressed “substantial doubt” about its ability to stay in business.

Overall, department stores employ one-third fewer people now than they did in 2001. That is 500,000 traditional jobs gone — about 18 times as many jobs as were lost in coal mining over the same period.

Retail is not the only service industry that has been hit hard by changing technology. Another prime example is newspaper publishing, where employment has declined by 270,000, almost two-thirds of the workforce, since 2000.

So why are promises to save service jobs not as much a staple of political posturing as promises to save mining and manufacturing jobs?

One answer might be that mines and factories sometimes act as anchors of local economies, so their closing can devastate a community in a way that shutting a retail outlet will not — and there is something to that argument.

However, it is not the whole truth. Closing a factory is just one way to undermine a local community. Competition from superstores and shopping malls has also devastated many small-city downtowns.

Now many small-town malls are failing too. And we should not minimize the extent to which the long decline of small newspapers has eroded the sense of local identity.

A different, less creditable reason mining and manufacturing have become political footballs, while services have not, involves the need for villains.

Demagogues can tell coal miners that liberals took away their jobs with environmental regulations. They can tell industrial workers that their jobs were taken away by nasty foreigners. And they can promise to bring the jobs back by making America polluted again, by getting tough on trade, and so on.

These are false promises, but they play well with some audiences.

By contrast, it is really hard to blame either liberals or foreigners for, say, the decline of Sears: The chain’s asset-stripping, Ayn Rand-loving owner is another story, but one that probably does not resonate in the heartland.

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