Economics professors have always agreed about what comes after an industrial economy: a knowledge-based economy. Service industries would rise up to push around the money we made, inventing and utilizing new technologies. Workers would be data crunchers. They would be accountants, economists, health care workers and computer scientists. Great – no problem we all said. Just stay ahead of the (education) curve and don’t expect to get rich as a steel or car plant worker.
There is, however, another path. What if our remaining industrial base becomes so denuded that it (virtually) no longer produces goods. We won’t need as many engineers to improve productivity or to build robots to replace workers. We won’t need accountants or investment professionals to manage the wealth created by these industries. We won’t need scientists to do R&D since that always takes place near the production facility. (Why do R&D anyway in a world of rampant global IP theft?)
China has replaced us as the new industrial behemoth. They need raw materials for their factories and food for their army of peasant labor. Yes, they need services too but those markets are completely closed to foreign providers. (Just ask Google and Microsoft). Who shall feed the beast?
The Future: Our industrial capacity is shrinking towards irrelevance and our service sector is stalled out. We are the global consumer and without any trade barriers, everyone is just chewing on our flesh. We can still buy their goods but it’s all paid for with borrowed money. So now we are to go back to what we used to do – before the 2nd industrial revolution. We will produce food, minerals, and fuel and sell them to China and Japan just like Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. There are no import barriers on oil or wheat. This is economic development in reverse. It is, of course, a path to poverty and massive income inequality. The whole idea behind trade barriers was to protect young industries (and countries) until they have improved efficiency and become innovative. We have been doing the opposite for 20 years and it’s killing us.
Am I being too cynical? Let’s look at the data. In 2017 6/10 of the top exports (by category) to China were commodity goods. Only three of the top ten were commodity sectors in 2007. ” In 2007, the U.S. manufacturing trade deficit … accounted for 76.99 percent of the overall merchandise deficit on a Census basis. The 2017 figure? 116.50 percent.”
The race to the bottom that began when China got MFN status is in its final stages. To sustain 2.5% growth we are bankrupting the state. We have manufactured the illusion of increased wealth by virtue of massive debt increases. The robotics wave will have a greater effect on Chinese and German productivity since that is where global manufacturing now resides. We must get it back. Mercantilism can save us just like it made us in the 19th century but we’ll need a new mindset and new leadership.
Let’s dig up Alexander Hamilton.