Global manufacturing is not a zero-sum game.
In other words, when a factory that makes tablets or desktop computers in the U.S. shuts down the economic impact needs to be measured in ways that go beyond simply counting the number of jobs lost at that U.S. factory.
It's too simplistic, experts say, to view that factory closing as a scenario in which the U.S. lost 150 jobs and, say, the Philippines, Malaysia or China gained 150 jobs.
“It’s not a cut and dried deal,” said Craig Broswell, owner of Machinax Fabrication Inc., a Chino, Calif., machinery maker. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t see the big picture.”
During Tuesday night’s presidential debate, the candidates were asked what can be done, if anything, to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Setting up the larger question, the moderator told President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney that Apple (AAPL) makes all of its popular iPhone and iPad products in China.
Romney said the U.S. needs to take a tougher stance against Chinese policies such as currency manipulation that have created a significant trade imbalance between the U.S. and China. The Chinese have long been accused of keeping their currency artificially low so that Chinese goods are cheaper than their competitors' exports.
In addition to currency manipulation, Romney also accused the Chinese of intellectual property theft and cyber hacking.
“We can compete with anyone in the world as long as the playing field is level. China’s been cheating over the years,” Romney said.
Obama conceded that some U.S. jobs that have been lost to countries with significantly lower labor costs are probably gone for good.
"There are some jobs that are not going to come back because they're low-wage, low-skilled jobs,” Obama said. “I want high-wage, high-skill jobs.”
The president said the U.S. needs to invest in advanced manufacturing and provide adequate training to prepare workers for those jobs.
Cliff Waldman, a senior economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, said the two candidates addressed different aspects of a complex problem -- and both answers were correct.
“Our problems are complex and don’t lend themselves to one sentence solutions. Both of them were right,” he said. “Why jobs move from country to country is very complicated.”
Waldman explained that U.S. workers employed by multi-national companies can benefit when those companies open facilities around the globe in an effort to take advantage of cheaper production costs.
For example, U.S. employees at multinational companies with operations in China undoubtedly benefited from the health of China’s economy in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, according to Waldman.
“One of the reasons that manufacturing had a stronger rebound than the rest of the economy was because it invested in large emerging markets such as China. And those emerging markets, after we hit bottom in 2009, came back faster and stronger than anyone anticipated,” he said.