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The Alliance for American Manufacturing addresses one of my pet peeves in It’s Not Automation, It’s The Trade Deficit.

A common refrain in economic commentary on the nature of work, and the changes in manufacturing employment, is basically:

“Trade didn’t take those jobs. It was robots. The robots did it!”foreign goods

Okay, maybe it’s not the terminators who are doing it. Rather, it’s industrial automation: We make more stuff with less people, because manufacturing is now performed by automated processes. This idea is breezily inserted into all kinds of articles, including ones with other interesting things to say. (And, in defense of those who spread this idea, there are studies that back this up.)

But this isn’t the entirety of thinking on the subject. David Autor – one of the academics behind the “China shock” hypothesis – has pumped the brakes on this idea. And others – from those at the Democratic-aligned Brookings Institute to President Trump’s hawkish chief of the National Trade Council, Peter Navarro – have pointed to the real-world example of Germany, which has put a lot of robots on the assembly line in recent years but hasn’t seen its substantial manufacturing workforce shrink.

So what gives? How does this refrain persist? Well, a new report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) takes a look at the “shaky foundations” it stands on: