Second, data just for manufacturing are harder to come by. Goods data are compiled every quarter, while manufacturing data are available only annually and with a lag. The latest data for manufacturing is for 2001, while we have goods data through the 2nd quarter of this year. Furthermore, manufacturing data after 1987 are incompatible with those before because of certain definitional changes.
Nevertheless, looking at manufacturing alone still makes my point. Since 2001 was a recession year, it is reasonable to compare it to the last recession year in 1991. In nominal (money) terms, manufacturing has fallen from 17.4 percent of GDP to 14.1 percent. But in real (inflation adjusted) terms, it is actually up a little, rising from 16 percent to 16.2 percent.
It is critical to use real data to make a valid comparison because prices for many goods, such as computers, have fallen sharply. Since GDP data are calculated in money rather than volume terms, failing to take account of this fact would give a distorted picture of what is going on.
For example, suppose output of some product rose by 10 percent in terms of units, while falling 10 percent in price, due to higher productivity. Using the nominal data would make it appear as if there had been no increase in output. Using real data captures the increase.
Finally, many people wrote to tell me that I could not be right because the factory down the street from them just closed. However, one cannot make national policy by looking at isolated events. It would be like trying to tell what the weather is 1,000 miles away by looking out one's window. To make policy, one must examine comprehensive data that account for new factories and increased output elsewhere, which have offset the closed factories in particular places. The Commerce Department's data is the best there is on this score and far superior to any individual's personal observations.
It is worth remembering that when a plant closes, it is likely to make news, especially if it is the major employer in a small town. The local paper is unlikely to note the opening of a new factory on the other side of the country. Consequently, a parochial perspective can produce a false picture of national trends.
I remain convinced that U.S. manufacturing is fundamentally healthy.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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