MEXICO CITY—Donald Trump has identified the wrong scapegoat to blame for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. But the president-elect is either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that machines—not Mexicans—are perhaps the main culprit for U.S. job-loss in the manufacturing sector.
“We can make more stuff with fewer people,” says Chris Wilson, a trade expert at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington, D.C. “The real enemy is robots, not trade with Mexico. But in politics the conversation is about trade agreements and not about technology.”
Wilson isn’t alone. Several studies have found that automation is a leading cause for U.S. manufacturing job loss.
“Manufacturing was once the nation’s largest employer, but automation and globalization have contributed to its long-term decline. Between 1967 and 2007, the share of value added to the economy by manufacturing declined from 31 percent to 16 percent,” reads a 2016 Georgetown University study on U.S. education and workforce.
More than 80% of job losses in the U.S. manufacturing sector from 2000 to 2010 can be attributed to increased productivity enhanced by technological change and automation, according to a 2015 Ball State University study.
Martin Ford, an artificial intelligence expert and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, says “it’s easier to point the finger at China or Mexican immigration,” but it shows an incomplete understanding of the problem.
“The people who voted for Trump railed against immigration and trade, but automation is at least as important as those factors when it comes to job loss,” Ford told me. “Trump has promised to bring jobs back but I don’t see any realistic way that can happen.”
Ford says that when companies do return to the U.S., they usually become fully automated. He predicts that technology will continue to evolve to the point where all jobs will be threatened, not just the manufacturing sector.
“As we look into the future, technology will be a bigger factor. It’s not only about physical robots but software,” he said. “Algorithms can now replace lawyers for some tasks and journalists as well. The kind of white collar work that involves sitting in front of a computer will also be subject to automation. Even jobs at McDonalds are in danger.”
Trump is also 20 years late in fighting the free-trade agreement with Mexico, which over the past two decades has evolved into an economic arrangement of mutual dependency that might prove too costly to dismantle.
Even as Trump vows to punish Mexico, the trade relationship continues to grow. Government figures show that Mexico recently overtook Canada as the No. 2 exporter to the United States, after China. And just last week Wal-Mart announced it would invest $1.3 billion in Mexico over the next three years, creating 10,000 new jobs.
But despite the reality of the situation, Trump continues to push his own narrative.
“Robots are not up for a vote,” Chris Wilson told me. “But we do get to make a political choice about trade.”