Over the course of my career, I have witnessed firsthand both the good and the horrible results of what is known as "free" trade.
But in this brave new world we now find ourselves in -- with automotive CEOs summoned to the White House for photo ops -- those demanding a "return of manufacturing" to the U.S. may not get exactly what they expect.
The factory jobs that fled the industrial Midwest and other locales for Mexico after the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994 are gone, no matter how the law and trade agreements are changed.
But if the maquiladoras south of the border would suddenly close and their work sourced to new plants in the U.S., that work would largely now be done by robotic -- not human -- hands.
According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, annual productivity gains in U.S. manufacturing since 1990 have been nearly double the productivity gains across the rest of the nonfarm business sector. This was especially true between 1990 and 2007, during which NAFTA took full effect.
Put simply, U.S. manufacturing builds way more stuff with many fewer people than it ever has before. That is a direct result of ever-increasing automation, and it shows no sign of abating.
Between 1990 and 2000, manufacturing productivity grew at an average annualized rate of 4.1 percent. Between 2000 and 2007, the rate was 4.7 percent. From 2007 to 2015, which includes the Great Recession, the annualized growth rate was a more modest 1.8 percent.
But game this out. If a border tax made operations in Mexico not economically viable and an automaker or supplier must move operations to the U.S., that company will build the most efficient plant it can afford to build. That means more robots, and fewer workers.
Look, I am no fan of "free" trade, at least as it has been historically applied. I believe its detriments have far outweighed its advantages -- especially on a local level where substantive trade adjustment assistance has not been forthcoming.
But I also believe that global trade does have societal advantages, including many that are overlooked. Chief among them: Global trading partners are far more likely to resolve potential conflicts peacefully. Who wants to wage war on their customer?
It's also an effective way to lift citizens in underdeveloped and impoverished nations to a better way of life, so long as those citizens aren't exploited in the process.
I just hope that those making a headlong rush to return to the 1980s realize that that era is long gone.