There’s a very old parable, thought to have originated in the Indian subcontinent, of six blind (or blind-folded) men asked to describe an elephant.1 They reach different conclusions depending upon which part of the elephant they touch:
- Side – it’s like a wall
- Leg – it’s like a tree
- Trunk – it’s like a snake
- Tusk – it’s like a spear
- Ear – it’s like a fan
- Tail – it’s like a rope
The point is that people have the tendency to project their partial observations to represent the entirety of something. Each man was “correct” in their assessment, they just did a poor job of explaining the entirety of the elephant.
A similar challenge arises when trying to describe or characterize the role of manufacturing. We use disparate data sources to see parts of manufacturing – Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census, International Trade Administration, National Science Foundation and the Federal Reserve Economic Data. These data sources help us to remove our blind-folds and see a part of manufacturing more clearly. But like the parable, taken alone they do not represent the entirety. The more complete picture of manufacturing includes all these elements:
- Manufacturing is the 6th largest employer
- Manufacturing jobs reflect higher earnings
- More than half of all exports are manufactured goods
- Manufacturing consistently represents more than 10 percent of GDP
- Manufacturing is the primary source (about two-thirds) of R&D
Like the elephant, U.S. manufacturing cannot be adequately explained through a narrowly focused observation and analysis, but by taking a broader look at the facts about manufacturing.