(Note: I wrote this post last Sunday, long before last night’s State of the Union speech. For my reactions to the State of the Union, see my Twitter feed.)
When I was about 20 and in college in Montreal, I bought Verbatim, by Jacques Attali, an economist who, among other things, served as special advisor to French President François Mitterrand. The book is a memoir of Attali’s time at the Élysée.
Verbatim opens with Mitterrand’s election in 1981, when the Western world was experiencing a recession. Early on in his presidency, Mitterrand asks Attali: “Why aren’t we making VCRs in France?,” implying that France should be making VCRs.
I hadn’t taken a single college-level class at that point, but I still realized that Mitterrand’s question was an astonishing display of economic illiteracy.
Fast forward to last Sunday, when I read the following article on the front page of the New York Times:
When Barack Obama joined Silicon Valley’s top luminaries for dinner in California last February, each guest was asked to come with a question for the president.
But as Steven P. Jobs of Apple spoke, President Obama interrupted with an inquiry of his own: what would it take to make iPhones in the United States?
Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.
Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.
Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.
The article is a great read, but I really am at a loss as to what to think about the President’s question.
On the one hand, he might understand economics and know that those jobs are not coming back, but he might have asked the question so as to be perceived as caring about creating jobs in the US.
Color me cynical, but my belief that the President is a very smart man — I would have voted for him if I could vote in this country, and my wife not only voted for him but contributed to his campaign — has a hard time co-existing with the belief that his question might have been asked in earnest, so my mind defaults to “he was just politicking.”
On the other hand, he might completely misunderstand economics, and just how powerful the forces of globalization are.
If the President’s question was asked in earnest, we are in trouble. Those jobs are indeed not coming back. Much like the US economy went from being an agrarian economy to being a manufacturing economy in the 19th century, the US economy went from being a manufacturing economy to being a service and research and development economy in last quarter of the 20th century.
We are at a point in history where our comparative advantage lies in the tertiary and quaternary sectors of the economy. Forget secondary-sector jobs. Those went the way of the dodo sometime in the 1970s. Let’s focus our attention on developing the services and research and development sector of the US economy rather than lamenting the disappearance of agricultural and manufacturing jobs.
Getting those manufactured jobs back would mean that the US economy is regressing and that real incomes are not only stagnating, but decreasing more than they already did. If that is truly what the President wants, he should prepare for a revolution.