Both parties are making an economic promise they most likely won’t be able to keep.

Since the 2012 presidential campaign really started getting going almost a year ago, we’ve heard candidates from each side of the ticket make their case to solve our economy’s current woes. Democrats argue for government investment in infrastructure, education and new energy. Republicans, as expected, take the opposite position, hoping to end the country’s fiscal and employment problems with sweeping tax cuts and deregulation. However, there is a common thread between these two opposing arguments — manufacturing jobs.

Since pulling ourselves out of the Great Depression while simultaneously winning the Second World War, America has prided itself on the creation of consumer goods. But with the advent of globalization, free trade and a new world economy, manufacturing has fallen off a cliff. In 1978, more than 19 million people in the U.S. were employed in manufacturing, specifically. In 2010, that number dropped to 11.7 million. The auto industry has been hit just as hard, as the United States now only produces approximately five percent of the world’s automobiles.

Candidates have taken full political advantage of the situation. Manufacturing plays an integral role in the campaigns of both President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Romney gave a speech-turned-commercial before last year’s State of the Union address inside a factory in Tampa, Florida. Earlier in the summer, the Obama team produced an ad in which a worker described how Bain Capital shut down his factory under Romney’s direction.

Manufacturing is a soft spot for Americans, especially for so many middle-income people who fear being laid off. These people — who work low-skill jobs for a moderate income — are the people really depending on the outcome of this election. They are the undecided voters who will ultimately make the difference in who our next president will be; voting for who they believe will “bring back manufacturing jobs.” Sadly, both candidates are selling a fake product.

Take a look at China, the United States’ biggest economic competitor. In terms of labor, China is essentially the opposite of what we as a country have attempted to be over the last 70 years. Chinese labor laws and safety regulations are virtually non-existent. Furthermore, they’ve slapped foreign products with unreasonable tariffs, so while they take jobs from the United States, they also deter their 1.3 billion person population from buying American goods.

Here’s the hard truth: the manufacturing jobs that have left the United States are likely never coming back. We would all love to see the abandoned factories that politicians speak in front of once again hum with workers and the production of goods that are now exclusively labeled “Made in China.” Unfortunately, this isn’t going to happen. The vast majority of goods produced in the world take minimal skill to create, and to a business owner, a worker in China is the same as a worker in America. The difference is that the Chinese worker will cost pennies on the dollar in a less safe (and less expensive) factory. Sure, shipping will go up, but the cost of production will be a minute fraction of what it was.

Barring a Chinese revolution and the immediate overhaul of labor laws and regulations, goods will continue to be far less expensive to produce overseas. Lowering taxes on businesses may help slightly, but our rates are already among the lowest in the world. Tariffs of our own could help to break even with Chinese costs, but starting a trade war with the people lending us money to make our society livable is not exactly an ideal diplomatic situation. If either party would like to offer a real solution to our current economic crisis, they should look elsewhere. The increased necessity for energy-efficient products of all shapes and sizes could be the next economic boom — a sector requiring high-paying jobs and some good old American ingenuity. In reality, clean energy could likely be what the dot com explosion was of the 1990s. That is, if government and private industries play their cards right. But if America keeps bluffing on this idea of consumer manufacturing jobs coming back as our big winner, China will be the one to hit the jackpot while we go poor playing the penny slots.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.

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