In economics books it is called Comparative Advantage. It is the underlying key to successful trade among nations. In non-economist terms, it is what can I offer that the other guy can’t that will give me an advantage in trading so I come out on top.
When the United States was very young, we had unbelievable amounts of natural resources. As we approached the twentieth century we had a powerful work force achieved through the immigration of people looking for a better opportunity. These people were both adventurous and driven to succeed – they made a productive work force. Oh yes! we still had abundant natural resources. In the second half of the twentieth century, after the two world wars, Asia and Europe were devastated and without infrastructure, and they were in need of all things manufactured as they were rebuilding. The comparative advantage of the United States was its gargantuan manufacturing infrastructure resulting from the build up to produce for World War II, and the many technical achievements gleaned from the war arsenal. We had a customer – the world – ready to consume any and all that we could produce. In effect we not only had a comparative advantage, but also an absolute advantage – we could only prosper – we could literally phone it in. It was all about us!
By the close of the twentieth century both Asia and Europe, with the exception of the iron curtain countries and the Republic of China, had rebuilt their infrastructure, and in many cases with more up to date and productive manufacturing facilities than we had. The United States had fewer desirable / usable natural resources. Our coal reserves became unpopular and our desire to not spoil our planet kept us from fully developing our oil reserves. In the mean time, oil was becoming the key natural resource in the world for the later part of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty first century.
In the second half of the twentieth century, we became oblivious to the world – remember it was all about us! We paid our people ever increasing wages in manufacturing, added many unproductive work rules, and taxed our companies to the point that all three events took away our comparative world trade advantage in manufacturing. We were now at a trade disadvantage – yet our appetite to consume was still feverish. During this period, it became more advantageous for our manufacturing companies to move manufacturing overseas. If they had not done so, they would not have been able to compete on the world stage and be profitable. During this period, one bright spot in our comparative advantage was our strength in technology and highly educated and well trained engineers. Our use of technology gave us a comparative advantage in productivity. We continued to utilize our comparative advantage in the trade of technology – we thought it up and it was manufactured overseas. Over the last quarter of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first century, Asia caught up, only with a twist – same or better engineering with lower wages – the comparative advantage shifted in their favor. We also allowed our schools to lose their leadership in delivering a strong education from K through 12.
Today, what do we offer: restrained under utilized resources, a broken education system, uncompetitive costs on a world scale due to high wages on the remaining manufacturing jobs (auto industry), a declining infrastructure, comparatively high taxes on companies attempting world trade, and a voracious appetite to consume manufactured goods and oil from overseas? Yet our political leadership continues along as if we remained the pre-eminent holders of all things comparative trade. Our free trade agreements are good, yet we entered the trade arena with a handicap – we have no comparative advantage, so they are NOT good for us at this time. Protectionism will not work, because the nations of world can get along trading among themselves – they no longer need us.
What do we need to do?
- Business: stop taxing our domestic businesses engaged in manufacturing, give them a financial trade advantage as they will still be paying higher wages for manufacturing workers than their world competition; remove the health insurance financial burden from business and move it to a national health insurance system; move to a consumption tax and stop taxing the businesses that need to trade to grow so they can build and offer more good paying jobs – we need to put our domestic businesses on a level playing field with the rest of the world.
- Children: target our children by giving them all a top flight education and by challenging them with a tougher curriculum, and longer school years just as advantaged world trading nations do.
- Energy: drill for and refine our untouched domestic oil reserves in the short term; utilize nuclear, clean coal, and solar in the mid-term; develop wind, geo-thermal, advanced solar, tidal and hydrogen fuel in the long term. We need to lower the cost to produce and transport.
If we don’t rebuild our lost comparative advantage we will never hold a free trade advantage, we will continue to become a nation of past successes and a second tier nation at that. Remember it is a world economy now and the competition is fierce.