A recent visit by President Obama to an Ohio steel mill underscored his promise to create 1 million manufacturing jobs. On the same day, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker announced her department’s commitment to exports, saying “Trade must become a bigger part of the DNA of our economy.”
These two impulses — to reinvigorate manufacturing and to emphasize exports — are, or should be, joined at the hip. The U.S. needs an export strategy led by research and development, and it needs it now. A serious federal commitment to R&D would help arrest the long-term decline in manufacturing, and return America to its preeminent and competitive positions in high tech. At the same time, increasing sales of these once-key exports abroad would improve our also-declining balance of trade.
It’s the best shot the U.S. has to energize its weak economic recovery. R&D investment in products sold in foreign markets would yield a greater contribution to economic growth than any other feasible approach today. It would raise GDP, lower unemployment, and rehabilitate production operations in ways that would reverberate worldwide.
The Obama administration is proud of the 2012 increase of 4.4 percent in overall exports over 2011. But that rise hasn’t provided a major jolt to employment and growth rates, because our net exports — that is, exports minus imports — are languishing. Significantly, the U.S. is losing ground in the job-rich arena of exported manufactured goods with high-technology content. Once the world leader, we’ve now been surpassed by Germany.
America’s economic health won’t be strong while its trade deficit stands close to a problematically high 3 percent of GDP (and widening). Up until the Reagan administration, we ran trade surpluses. Then, manufacturing and net exports began to shrink almost in tandem.