Russo: Will Obama's support for advanced manufacturing help Dems win white working class votes?
The following article, which first appeared in the Cleveland plain Dealer, is by John Russo, former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University and co-author with Sherry lee Linkon of "Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown."
People in Youngstown were excited when, in his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama cited the new $70 million National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) hub as central to his emerging economic and manufacturing policy. An investment in new manufacturing in a city still struggling three decades after deindustrialization might seem both economically and politically savvy, but it's not clear that NAMII will either strengthen the local economy or attract more votes for Democrats in the future.
Over the last decade, research-and-development manufacturing hubs have become a dominant paradigm for rebuilding a competitive manufacturing sector, and Obama plans to create 17 more of them around the United States. They bring together state and local governments, universities and businesses to confront technological challenges through innovative design and manufacturing methods. In Youngstown, the hub is devoted to the development and expansion of "3D printing," which deposits thin layers of material to design and shape various components. This "3D" process enhances business competitiveness by reducing design, manufacturing and energy costs.
But local workers are rightly cautious about NAMII. They understand that 3D printing technology could cost some of them jobs. Like other technology, it will require more skills from some while rendering others' skills obsolete. Just as computer-aided manufacturing has reduced many skilled machinists to machine tenders, and information technology has reduced some accountants to data processors, 3D printing will likely displace at least as many machinists and tool-and-die makers as it creates new positions, and it could make small-scale machine shops redundant. Supporters will tout the new jobs and improved business efficiency created by NAMII, but they're not likely to even acknowledge the associated job losses.
As with previous high-tech efforts in the Mahoning Valley, workers may well be new arrivals who will rent or buy homes in the suburbs or commute from other cities in the region. As one resident told National Public Radio, most locals don't even recognize Youngstown as the center of an emerging "tech belt," with NAMII at its core. It is important to remember that high-tech industries aren't enough to repair the economic dislocations caused by more than 30 years of disinvestment and deindustrialization.
As Richard Florida and Michele Maynard have suggested in The Atlantic's Cities website, compared with manufacturing in the past, advanced manufacturing no longer generates many good-paying jobs with high wages and benefits. NAMII may well help local businesses to develop, but Youngstown and cities like it would be wrong to pin all of their hopes on investments in advanced manufacturing. High-tech operations may not be sufficient to offset a globalized economy, a disadvantageous trade policy, currency manipulation and tax policies that encourage offshoring, all of which play a critical role.
Nor will Democratic-led investment in advanced manufacturing necessarily attract new voters to the party. Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress has argued that while the Obama coalition has the potential to change future politics, the president's promise to invest in more high-tech manufacturing jobs may not translate into Democratic votes. To make its new majority sustainable, Teixeira argues, the Democratic Party must expand white working-class support, especially in states where minority growth is slow. Such voters are looking for material improvements for themselves and their families, and without substantive improvements, the working class could swing Ohio's votes back to Republicans, as happened in 2010.
In 2012, Obama won in Ohio because of a combination of minority turnout and above-average support from the white working class, most likely in response to the stimulus package and the auto bailout. To hold onto those voters, the Democrats will have to show that they have produced strategies that generate faster, stronger economic growth. That's especially important in states like Ohio, where the minority share of eligible voters is not growing rapidly, so white working-class votes matter more than in many other states.
Youngstown residents appreciated the extra attention their struggling city received and hope that federal investment in high-tech, advanced manufacturing will yield real, good jobs. While local Democrats can take credit for establishing NAMII and the emerging Tech Belt, Ohio Democrats should remember that they could also share the blame if the investment doesn't pay off and if exaggerated expectations are dashed, especially for the working class.