When factory jobs in small towns disappeared because of offshoring, automation, and corporate greed, workers like Fred Davis in Anderson, Ind., found themselves unemployed. After being loyal to Union City Body Co. for years, Davis was left with no salary, no health insurance, and thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.
Davis’s story is not unique, a point he was quick to make when I met him in August. He gave me a binder documenting 40 other factories that have closed in Indiana. These closures destroyed communities. They led to divorces when the breadwinner relocated for a job and the spouse didn’t want to move out of the only home they knew. Many who stayed struggled with depression due to the loss of purpose and pride that work had provided.
In Chicago, I spoke with steelworker Jawan Smith who worked at US Steel South Works. When he started out, steelworkers made $30 an hour with a pension. Now, too many steel mills have closed or downsized, and many of his friends are working at warehouses that pay closer to $17 an hour. He told me there are fewer economic opportunities for Black men in Chicago than there were four decades ago.
A recent report by Bill Spriggs of Howard University confirms with data what Smith already knows. Our country’s failed trade policies with China have led to the loss of millions of good-paying jobs and disproportionately harmed Black manufacturing workers. These same policies also left us unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Americans are shocked that we don’t make masks here, enough baby formula, semiconductor chips for our cars, or even basic electronics that are part of our smartphones.
We owe people like Davis and Smith honesty about the policy mistakes our nation has made. It was arrogant and naive to think that production didn’t matter and that we could let manufacturing jobs go offshore.
What the nation needs is a “New Economic Patriotism” plan. The plan would represent both a comprehensive set of policy actions designed to restore American manufacturing and technology leadership and a call to respect workers who will help our country achieve that goal. As part of this vision, the president should set a bold goal to achieve a trade surplus again by 2035. This is a proxy and metric for new industry, exports, and good-paying jobs. Germany maintains nearly 25 percent of its workforce in manufacturing jobs by investing in export industries to counteract the decline from imports and running a trade surplus. Trade deficits some years are fine when balanced by trade surpluses in other years. But the country has been in constant trade deficit since 1975.
The federal government must partner with the private sector to achieve this goal. First, it should finance factories at zero-interest loans and commit the purchasing power of the federal government to support American-made products and materials like batteries, electric heaters, steel, and aluminum. New bills like the CHIPS and Science Act, which I coauthored, should be introduced and passed for sectors beyond semiconductors. These new factories should be in every region of our country.
Second, the departments of Commerce and Education should work with companies, community colleges, and universities to invest in the next generation of workers. Google has already demonstrated this is possible on a small scale by partnering with the University of Nevada, Reno to provide students with 18 months of free technical training, a $5,000 stipend, and mentorship opportunities.
Third, the federal government should provide grants to support new manufacturing process innovation and productivity enhancements so that we can bring back manufacturing of major consumer goods like refrigerators, microwaves, and pharmaceuticals. The key is to have new processes that maximize new innovation advantages in these old industries. America’s innovation advantages will allow us to compete with cheaper labor costs around the world while making sure our workers are taken care of with fair wages and good benefits.
Coordinating these efforts will take work, and the government can’t do it alone. To scale up this vision, it should create a National Economic Development Council to bring together different agency heads, economists, and business and education leaders. The council can ensure that key components of supply chains — from wafers in solar manufacturing to graphite or lithium processing in battery manufacturing — are done here. It can be accountable for ensuring that $100 billion a year — the projected cost of this jobs-centric economic plan — is effectively and strategically deployed.
We are already seeing the results of policies to bring manufacturing home. Thanks to the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, Intel is making a $20 billion investment in Ohio that will create thousands of high-paying jobs, most of which will not require college degrees. This work must be accompanied by legislation like the PRO Act (which would treat workers as employees and give them a fair right to unionize), corporate tax policy, and wage boards to ensure that no one with a full-time job needs to rely on food stamps, housing vouchers, or other welfare.
Together, these efforts are the building blocks of a New Economic Patriotism plan.
Embracing a New Economic Patriotism plan isn’t just about jobs. It’s about unifying Americans — from the coasts to the heartland — with a shared purpose. Together, we will build the prosperity that is foundational to become the world’s first truly multiracial democracy.
Ro Khanna is a Democratic US representative from Silicon Valley, California.