The World Is Tilted
Date: Monday, November 28 2005
The World Is Tilted
The popular idea that America is one step smarter and more sophisticated than its rivals is a dangerous myth, and a threat to the global economy.
By Clyde Prestowitz
Issues 2006 - For most of the last 50 years, globalization has been a win-win proposition, making America richer while lifting hundreds of millions in the developing world out of poverty and despair. Recently, however, it has begun to operate differently, undermining U.S. welfare while creating imbalances likely to end in a global economic crisis.
In this new mode, globalization is tilting the world like a giant sliding board game on which the "flattening" of old barriers is accelerating the transfer of the supply side of the U.S. economy to the rest of the world, especially Asia. Take Boeing as an example. Long America's leading exporter, it symbolizes the kind of high-tech leadership on which the future of the U.S. economy is widely said to depend.
After losing market share to the European Airbus in recent years, Boeing responded by developing the new 787 Dreamliner, which is gathering record orders. Yet these sales may not add a lot to the U.S. economy because much of the work—including production of the critical carbon-fiber wings that Boeing always insisted would be kept at home—will be done in Japan.
Even more telling is the example of the semiconductor king, Intel. When economists and political leaders say American industry should concentrate on producing very-high-technology products where it has a clear comparative advantage, Intel's chips are what they have in mind. Yet company executives recently told a presidential advisory panel that under present circumstances they must consider building more of their new factories abroad. Over the next 10 years, they explained, the cost of running a semiconductor factory in the United States could be $1 billion more than that of running it abroad.
That there is something odd here is not yet widely acknowledged. Indeed, most business, academic, media and political leaders continue to insist that globalization is proceeding smoothly, making the world rich, more democratic and more peaceful. President Bill Clinton called globalization America's strategy, and President George W. Bush describes the American economy as the "envy of the world." Nor is this view entirely unjustified. U.S. GDP and productivity growth are the highest in the developed economies, while inflation, unemployment and interest rates are among the lowest.
Nevertheless, a closer look reveals a dark side. The U.S. trade deficit is now more than $800 billion, or 7 percent of GDP, and grows inexorably as Americans continue to consume more than they produce. The trade imbalance is of unprecedented size and breadth. Economists typically expect the United States to import commodities and cheap manufactured goods while exporting high-tech products, sophisticated services and agricultural goods, for which its land and climate are well suited. In reality, the U.S. high-tech trade surplus of $30 billion in 1998 has collapsed to a deficit of about $40 billion. Agricultural trade is now also in deficit for the first time in memory, and the modest surplus in services is declining as global deployment of the high-speed Internet has made it possible for services to move offshore as easily as manufacturing. In short, U.S. exports are declining versus imports across the board, while its growth depends on foreign lenders (primarily in Japan and China) to finance the excess consumption.
Two factors explain these unexpected trends. The first has been at work for a long time. It is the gradual construction of the global economy in an asymmetrical form. For the United States, globali-zation has meant building its economy into a giant consumption machine. Easy consumer credit, home-equity loans with tax-deductible interest payments, markets largely open to imports, policies that emphasize growth through demand management and accommodative monetary policy, and myriad other incentives have led Americans to save nothing while both households and government borrow at record rates. This is often justly criticized as excessive. But it is important to understand that American buying drives most of the world's growth because the United States is virtually the only net consuming country in the world.
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on November 28, 2005]