Obama Administration makes crucial pivot on trade and jobs.

Moving into the 2012 election season, the Obama Administration is making a critical  pivot in its political and economic narrative on trade and jobs. During his Midwest trip this summer,  Obama extolled American workers as the most productive in the world,  and talked about free trade treaties as the solution to the job problem. The implication was that nothing was wrong, and the return of jobs was only a matter of time.

But the White House has just issued a new report entitled “Investing in America: Building an Economy That Lasts”  that tells a very different story. The new report starts by saying:

Over the past decade, real business investment in production capacity stagnated.     Economic growth in the U.S. relied far too heavily on an unsustainable boom in residential and commercial real estate fueled by an unchecked financial sector.    The bubble created by this boom distorted our economy and undercut the international competitiveness of our products and services.    Companies increasingly chased low‐cost labor outside of the U.S., moving their manufacturing production, and some of their services, like call centers and software development, abroad.

The report points to the stagnation in business investment, the rising trade deficit, and falling manufacturing employment as real problems.

The dramatic decline in the level of manufacturing employment after 2000 signaled that something fundamental had change

This is an extremely important report, both politically and economically. Economically it points to trade as a major reason for job loss. In particular, it makes the point that the boom pushed up production costs above sustainable levels.

Politically, the report positions Obama in favor of  taking effective steps to bring jobs back to the country. This is a much better stance to run against a Republican like Mitt Romney, since one way that private equity firms cut costs is by outsourcing production overseas.

To me, this report appears to reflect the influence of the new CEA head, Alan Krueger. Krueger, a labor economist, has a realistic idea of how trade has affected the U.S. labor market.

I would suggest that for its next step, the White House should support the idea of a Competitiveness Audit, which identifies the industries where insourcing makes sense, and points out places where more work needs to be done. This would be relatively cheap way of improving the speed of insourcing, and getting more jobs created here more quickly.

Obama Talks Up the Production Economy

We (and by ‘we’ I mean my friends at the Progressive Policy Institute) have been talking a lot recently about the need for the U.S. to shift from a consumer economy to a production economy. (See for example here, here and here).

We are mighty pleased to see President Obama shifting in that direction. Here’s a quote from one of his latest speeches.

…over the last decade, we became a country that relied too much on what we bought and consumed. We racked up a lot of debt, but we didn’t create many jobs at all.

If we want an economy that’s built to last and built to compete, we have to change that. We have to restore America’s manufacturing might, which is what helped us build the largest middle-class in history. That’s why we chose to pull the auto industry back from the brink, saving hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process. And that’s why we’re investing in the next generation of high-tech, American manufacturing.

That’s a production economy, Mr. President.


Innovation-related comments on the SOTU

From the Christian Science Monitor:

‘America’s greatest economic strength, compared to its competitors, is its commitment to liberty, or the freedom to innovate and compete. Communist-run China adopted that economic model in 1979 and still hasn’t quite absorbed it with its state capitalism.

From Ezra Klein:

And without knowing what Obama is actually asking from Congress, it’s hard to know what his vision amounts to. Yes, it would be good “to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world,” and yes, public policy has a role in helping us do that. But a small commitment to public investment is very different than a big commitment to public investment.

From Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT):

However, while the President is calling for ‘new levels of research and development that haven’t been seen since the Space Race’ his Administration is also calling for the termination of our nation’s manned space program- a program whose science and technology research is an essential component of our nation’s missile defense program.  Terminating this program, including the Constellation program, would cede our leadership in space exploration over to countries like China, Russia and India.  Again, ironically, these are the same countries that, as he noted tonight, are rising as global leaders in innovation and technology.  It would be counterproductive to abandon our role as leaders in space exploration.

From Rob Atkinson of ITIF:

ITIF applauds the President’s call for tax reform but urges the Administration and Congress not be lulled into the simpler-is-better trap. ITIF has long argued that effective corporate rates are too high and that valuable credits, such as the R&D credit are too stingy. However, a complex economy sometimes benefits from a complex tax system. Computer chips are different from potato chips and they shouldn’t be taxed the same way. New machinery and equipment is different from housing and they shouldn’t be taxed the same way. ITIF has urged the creation of a new corporate competitiveness tax credit that would include a much more generous credit for research and development, and a credit for business investments in workforce training and new capital equipment, especially software


From Marshall Auerback:

Consider the solar industry, which represents a perfect microcosm of the challenges the US now faces in regard to China. Beijing’s command economy policy makers are piling subsidy on top of subsidy to make China’s domestic market and domestic production the largest in the world. Its state-controlled banking system under government directive is financing capacity equal to a multiple of world demand on lending terms that make no sense for an industry with this much competition and flux.

The Chinese solar industry has been able to drive down solar product prices to levels that are too competitive for the most automated U.S. producers using the most advanced technology. As a result, the U.S. solar industry, including Evergreen, upon which President Obama has placed such high hopes, is departing the U.S. for facilities elsewhere, including facilities joint ventured with favored Chinese companies.

This encroachment by the Chinese into the global market for solar products is not occurring because China has especially low labor costs. It is not occurring because China has more advanced technology. It is occurring because China’s command economy can force fixed investment in priority industries through a broad array of non-market means.


From Bruce Nussbaum, “What’s Wrong With America’s Innovation Policies

China’s brilliant “Fast Follower” innovation policy is generating the biggest transfer of technology in history. A combination of state-driven policies is driving this policy — requiring Western companies to partner with Chinese firms to do business; demanding transfer of the latest technologies in exchange for access to markets; favoring “indigenous innovation” in government purchasing; fencing off green and other industries from foreign competition; offering low-interest state-bank loans to local champions. This industrial policy is at odds with WTO standards, but is a boon to Chinese economic growth and a long-term threat to U.S. global competitiveness.

Obama Gets Innovation Upside-Down

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama spent a lot of time on innovation, regulation, and jobs–that’s good. Unfortunately, in all three cases he got his priorities upside down.

Let’s start with innovation.  I counted how many words the President devoted to different areas of innovation.

  • 2 words for biomedical research, the area where the U.S. is far ahead of the rest of the world.
  • 68 words devoted to extolling the job-creating virtues of space travel and NASA, an agency which currently has no mission unless it gets a lot more money.
  • 113 words for  highspeed-wireless broadband, a worthy goal.
  • 361 words in favor of clean energy, a technology where the U.S. has little competitive advantage over the rest of the world.

In other words, Obama spent his time lauding our least competitive areas of innovation, while giving the back of his hand to biomedical research, the area where we have the clear global advantage.

If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at these two charts.  When it comes to life sciences, the U.S. is way ahead. U.S. companies account for 44% of   R&D spending by life sciences companies around the world in 2010, according to estimates by Battelle/R&DMagazine.  And U.S. government support for health research is unsurpassed, accounting for 70% of  global public sector funding.

On the other hand, the U.S. support for  energy research is mediocre, at best. U.S. companies account for only 25% of global energy R&D spending by businesses.  And in 2008, before Obama took over, the U.S. government funding for energy R&D accounted for only 20% of the global public sector spending on energy R&D.  That’s pitiful.  

 Here’s what a recent R&DMagazine piece says about U.S. energy R&D:

the level of R&D spending in the U.S. energy sector is small in absolute terms and as a percent of revenue (0.3%) when compared with other sectors. For example, the total amount of private sector investment in all forms of energy research in our portfolio would likely amount to little more than half of the leading life science R&D investor, Merck, or the leading software/IT R&D investor, Microsoft, both of which invested more than $8.4 billion in R&D in 2009.

Mr. President, every time you talk about clean energy creating jobs, you are placing your bet on the wrong horse.  Communications and biosciences are the best bets we have in the near-term.

Now we come to regulation. I’m afraid once again the President started out right, and ended upside-down. He began by explaining how he would get rid of rules that imposed an unnecessary burden (29 words). But then he spends triple the time ( 102 words) defending his administration’s regulatory efforts.  He should have stopped while he was ahead.

Finally, we come to jobs, which were spread through the whole speech. This is my ‘soft’ count of how many times the word ‘jobs’ were mentioned in connection  with various areas of the economy (your count may differ) 

  • IT-1
  • Space-1
  • Clean energy –2
  • Education–3
  • Infrastructure –2
  • Exports–4

Exports got the most mentions as a source of jobs—-but no mention of imports, and no mention of the fact that our trade deficit in advanced technology products hit an all-time record in November, going into double digits for the first time.  The reason? Imports of advanced technology products have surged, while exports are basically flat.  Before worrying about exports, we should worry about recapturing some of the jobs lost to imports.  

Taking Bets on the State of the Union

Really, two bets:

1) Will Obama mention ‘innovation’ and ‘jobs’ in the same sentence?

2) Will Obama mention biosciences–pharma and medical devices–as a source of innovation and jobs, or will he just focus on energy?

I know, I know, the second one is a compound bet, but what the heck.

Post-speech response:  Innovation and jobs did show up in the same sentence. Biosciences as a source of innovation and jobs was basically ignored.

Where Does Obama Get His R&D Stats?

Speaking to the Business Roundtable on February 24, Obama said:

To spur the discovery of services and products and industries we have yet to imagine, we’re devoting more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development -– an amount that exceeds the level achieved at the height of the space race

 Who the heck is feeding the President his numbers? If anything, when the data for  2009 and 2010 national R&D finally come out, these figures  may turn out to be the worst in years.

The last published number on national R&D spending from NSF puts government, business, and academic spending on R&D at roughly 2.8% of GDP, less than the 2.9% in 1964.  

We know that government spending on R&D went up between 2008 and 2010, but the gain was less than a tenth of a percentage point of GDP. 

The real problem is that corporate and academic spending on U.S. R&D is almost certainly falling.  How fast? We don’t know.  But the combination of pharma mergers, auto company cutbacks, and the movement of  R&D facilities overseas suggests a sharp cutback in U.S. R&D spending.

In fact, the number of engineers and scientists employed in the U.S. contracted by 5.0%  in 2009, a much bigger decline than the 3.8% drop for the U.S. workforce as a whole.

Obama was sounding complacent, when he should have been sounding the alarm.