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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The U.S. Trade Deficit: Bad American Labor and Management?

Coming in at 2.7% of GDP, the U.S. trade deficit fell to $107.5 billion in the third quarter of 2012—down 9 percent from the second quarter’s $118.1 billion, which was 3% of the economy at the time. The current account includes merchandise, services, and investment flows. The surpluses in services and investment were out-done by the deficit in merchandise to produce the overall trade deficit. According to the New York Times, the “improvement in the current account in the third quarter reflected a decline in the deficit on goods and a small increase in the surplus on services, led by a gain in foreign earnings made by financial services, insurance and professional services provided by companies in the United States. The surplus on investment earnings narrowed to $50.8 billion, down from $52.1 billion in the second quarter.” Most of the decline in the deficit on goods reflected a decline in the foreign oil bill, according to Paul Ashworth at Capital Economics.
Lest we get bogged down in the purportedly significant differences between 2.7% and 3.0%, $107.5 billion and $118.1 billion, and $50.8 billion and $52.1 billion, respectively, we might take note of the rather stark difference between goods on the one hand (i.e., sustained deficits) and services and investment (i.e., sustained surpluses). Although it was no doubt true that the economic slow-down in China and the debt/austerity-induced recession in the E.U. were reducing demand for American exports, a basic imbalance between exports of American-made and imports of foreign goods is clear from the numbers year after year. Indeed, in 2006 the current account deficit had reached a record $800.6 billion—suggesting that something fundamental was “out of whack.”
                                               This graph isolates the deficits in goods imported/exported.   source: thismatters.com 
The question may be whether Americans were importing too many foreign goods or were too uncompetitive in making goods. Regarding the former, being able to buy a relatively inexpensive television made in China is not in itself a bad thing, particularly to the consumer. The question is perhaps whether the price was artificially low, due for instance to a relative lack of environmental regulations, lower labor costs, or government/bank subsidies. However, even if due to these factors, a low price is undoubtedly welcome to any consumer.
Regarding American competitiveness, was it hampered by labor and environmental standards or simply by unmotivated workers and bad management? Whereas American consumers benefit from cheap imported products, no such benefit can be found in the U.S. to any sector from a relative inferiority in competitiveness.
There is, however, the argument that an “advanced” economy oriented to professional, business and financial services rather than manufacturing can enjoy a higher standard of living if the services are more premium than the goods would be. The pristine notion of the “knowledge economy” captures this point very well. That not all Americans are willing or even able to participate at this level suggests that the term could never completely cover an entire economy. Hence, it is necessary even in an “advanced,” or “high tech” and “professional,” economy to tackle the problem of competitiveness in manufacturing.  Does it come from high regulatory costs (which can be viewed as part of a demand by Americans for a certain “standard of living” writ large), a lack of product development, or an inefficient labor or management force?  Whereas wanting a decent wage-floor or environment as a condition of manufacturing has merit—the cost being that society may have to support people who would otherwise be working in manufacturing—a dearth of ingenuity, bad employee attitudes, and inept management have no such positive aspect.
I was born and raised in a medium-sized industrial city in the “rust belt.” Furniture was the first industry, following which machine tools were the dominant manufacture until competition from Europe took out most of the factories. Speaking a few years ago with a European who had been sent over to oversee a factory that had been taken over by a European company, I was not surprised when he admitted, “the workers here just are not good. They are not motivated and they don’t pick up on the training very good.” Years before that, I had watched a program on the American public broadcasting network about a man’s effort to prepare inner-city black people for job interviews. Midway through his talk, the man admitted to the folks attending, “from your attitude even here, I have to admit I can’t see how anyone would hire you, so I don’t see any reason to continue here.” The man ended the workshop at that point. Doubtless his decision prompted little if any self-criticism from the participants. A bad attitude is perhaps almost impossible to correct from the outside—even with the inducement of money!—given the nature of a bad attitude. Regarding people under thirty, perhaps a year or two at a military “boot-camp” might break down the attitude’s intransience and build up self-confidence and self-respect, not to mention basic civility. Absent such a strategy, perhaps the segment of the American population unwilling (or able) to become part of the “knowledge economy” is inevitably lost—not being able to compete even on a factory floor. The cost to the rest of society goes well beyond money.
While visiting Miami, I witnessed repeated incidents on the buses from the mainland to Miami Beach of black men shouting and even hitting each other, as well as bumping into (and even falling on!) tourists. The black drivers ignored the shouts (including a drunk black man loudly and repeatedly calling a pregnant white woman a “fucking bitch”) and even fist-fights. Even with tourists begging the drivers that the aggressive passenger be dismissed from the bus, the drivers just drove on. In two cases, the drivers asked the men being hit if they wanted to press charges. They replied that they did not, so rather than get the aggressor off the buses or call the police, the drivers simply started driving again. This happened twice in the last 24 hours of my visit!  Near the beginning of my visit, I myself was pushed against the open bus door of a bus at a rail station while I was attempting to board a bus because I had not allowed all of the black passengers to enter first. The black driver refused to call the police or even tell the aggressive black man who had squeezed me to leave the bus. The driver simply replied to me—as I was pinned to the open front-door—“no, I won’t call the police. You shouldn’t have gotten on then. That’s how it is here.” I should have called the police! I was so stunned at the violence and systemic cover-up that I simply wanted to get to my destination. Just after I took my seat, a nice older black woman asked me where I was from. I told her that I had grown up in Illinois. “It must be worse in Chicago,” she remarked. “No,” I countered, “it is worse here. The blacks there are better.” In spite of being the only white person on the bus, I went on. “Even with the blacks killing each other in south Chicago, the people are better there.” She asked if north Chicago was white and the south part black. “No, the north part of the city itself is integrated, while I think the south is black. I was referring to the north—the blacks there are much better than the ones here. Here—I can’t leave soon enough.” Silence . . . complete silence. It then occurred to me that the entire bus—which still had not left the tri-county rail station—had been listening to this white guy talk about blacks very directly.
As it happened, a month or so later I was in Chicago taking a bus when a black man tried to enter the bus by pushing three old white women in line in front of him. The driver, who was also black, saw the attempt and quickly said, “Hey, what do you think you are doing? Get back out of the bus and let those women on first. Who do you think you are?” Then the driver turned to us in the bus and remarked, “It’s all about him, isn’t it?” The offender must have been startled, for he merely replied, “But it is cold out.” The driver pointed out that it was cold for the women too. The three women ended up sitting near me, and I told them (and the front half of the bus) about what I had witnessed in Miami on the buses there—and that it really was better in Chicago and even warmer despite the cold—even in terms of people moving past each other in the isle. “In Miami, the driver would not have intervened and you all would have been pushed out of the way of the guy who was behind you in line. Even complaining to the driver would have had no effect, and the man would have gotten away with it—whereas here that attitude is an exception. It was therefore countered, or pushed back, and therefore not allowed to become the default.” I don’t know whether the driver heard my compliment.
While it is easy to point to the bad attitude of many of the black passengers in Miami, I contend that the incompetence and attitude of the bus drivers there were just as problematic, and my anecdote from a bus in Chicago demonstrates that the attitude need not be enabled rather than challenged. The fact that the drivers in Miami all reacted the virtually the same way suggests that the decadence is systemic there. Put another way, the rudeness and aggression had become the norm and thus could not be checked. Perhaps this is why the drivers simply ignored even the violence—though this is hardly a viable excuse.
In terms of passive aggression, I witnessed drivers of buses going between downtown and Miami Beach regularly and knowingly cram too many passengers (even tourists!) on the buses and then demand that the extra passengers (who had already paid) shout back into the bus for others to step back so the extras could “get behind the yellow line.” To allow passengers known to be beyond capacity on board and then put them in an impossible situation while refusing to take control of the bus by making an announcement for people standing to move back evinces not only incompetence, but also an almost-sadistic mindset. On several occasions, I saw order itself fall apart on buses there as frustrated passengers—even tourists!—openly challenged the unjust and incompetent drivers on this very point.
Leaving Miami, my overall conclusion was that that county should not be part of the United States of America because of the rudeness, aggression and even the break-down in order—all tacitly sanctioned by county managers and employees. The rudeness, by the way, was nearly everywhere, rather than just on buses. I could not imagine any of the aggressive passengers or enabling drivers lasting more than a few days working in a factory, and the bus company managers (who knew of the incidents, according to local passengers) were doubtless virtually unemployable in the private sector too.
In short, the serial merchandise trade-deficits may point to an America that even many Americans do not know exists. That is, the structural imbalance may reflect a decline in American society—both in terms of labor and management—that manifests in a significant number of Americans compromising manufacturing or even being virtually unemployable. Put another way, I suspect that the condition in the American factory was at least as of 2012 part of a much more serious problem wherein even the social contract itself was under threat, or at the very least the American empire was in decline.


The Associated Press, “US Shirks Trade Deficit As Oil Falls,” The New York Times, December 19, 2012.