You Can't "Bring Back" Jobs We Never Had

A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 17 2012 4:46 PM

You Can't "Bring Back" Jobs We Never Had

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A clock is pictured on a Apple's Ipad model on October 12, 2012 in Lausanne.

Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GettyImages

I thought Candy Crowley generally did the best job of any of the three moderators we've seen thus far, so I don't want to pick on her, but reading back over the transcript this was a really oddly phrased question:

iPad, the Macs, the iPhones, they are all manufactured in China. One of the major reasons is labor is so much cheaper here. How do you convince a great American company to bring that manufacturing back here?
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There's no doubt that some U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost to China. But you can't bring iPad and iPhone manufacturing "back here" for the very good reason that it was never here in the first place. Ten years ago, approximately zero Americans were employed in manufacturing tablet computers and smartphones and that's still the case today. But there's been enormous net growth in the number of Americans whose jobs relate, in whole or in part, to the tablet and smartphone industry. People have jobs writing apps for these devices. People are involved in industrial design and marketing. People sell them in stores or drive trucks to deliver them. Smartphone apps that help you know when the bus is coming and give you something to do while you're riding have increased the demand for bus drivers. People are employed covering the smartphone industry as journalists.

And scale matters for all of this. There wouldn't be people employed today in the physical construction of LTE networks unless there was a large body of data hungry smartphone users. Similarly, it wouldn't be possible to have a job as a smartphone app developer unless there were a lot of smartphone users. Nor would it be possible to be the guy who makes a living helping the app developer with his accounting or legal needs unless there were a lot of smartphone users. And of course absent a critical mass of app developers, the phones themselves wouldn't be as appealing. The entire ecosystem couldn't exist until the phones and tablets can be built cheaply enough to sell to a mass audience.

Americans never had any jobs manufacturing iPads. But thanks to the fact that Chinese factories are churning out iPads, lots of people have jobs that wouldn't exist if the iPad wasn't available as a hit product.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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