The Gang of Eight (Bill Clinton, John Major, Jacques Delors, Robert Reich, Laura D'Andrea Tyson, Mickey Kantor, Ira Magaziner, Lester Thurow) pleads not guilty to Paul Krugman's charges that it is grossly exaggerating the importance of international competitiveness.

Krugman asserts that, economically, nations have "no well-defined bottom line." Wrong! Nations seek to raise the living standards of each citizen. Higher living standards depend on rising productivity, and in any economy the rate of productivity growth is principally determined by the size of domestic investments in plant and equipment, research and development, skills and public infrastructure, and the quality of private management and public administration.

I have written articles referring to strategic trade policies as the "seven percent solution." Ninety-three percent of economic success or failure is determined at home with only seven percent depending on competitive and cooperative arrangements with the rest of the world. My book, The Zero-Sum Solution: Building a World-Class American Economy, contains 23 pages on competitiveness issues, 45 pages on the importance of international cooperation and 333 pages on getting things right at home. The centrality of domestic invention and innovation is precisely why I agreed to lead the Lemelson-MIT program in invention and innovation, one part of which is a $500,000 prize for the American inventor and innovator of the year. The corpus of writings, speeches and actions of the rest of the Gang of Eight contains similar quotations, proportions and actions.

But remembering this sense of proportion, what is the role for competitiveness? Clearly something is wrong with Krugman's arithmetic that shows international trade cannot make much difference to American productivity. If his arithmetic were correct, then it follows that a lot of American protection might be quite a good thing.

Today 6 million Americans are working part-time who would like to work full-time, and almost 9 million are unemployed. In the last 20 years the bottom two-thirds of the male work force has taken a 20 percent reduction in real wages. The American work force could use a few million extra high-wage jobs. Suppose the United States were to impose quotas on manufactured imports so as to bring American imports (now 14 percent of gross domestic product) down to the 10 percent of GDP currently exported, that is, increase the domestically produced GDP by $250 billion. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, if one divides manufacturing output by manufacturing employment, every $45 billion in extra output represents one million jobs. Production of current imports would absorb more than 5 million of those 15 million underemployed and unemployed people.

Since more Americans would be working in a sector with above-average productivity, national output and earnings would rise. The losses to the American consumer in the form of higher prices would be smaller than the gains to American producers in the form of higher earnings unless American producers were less than half as efficient as those abroad (an unlikely event). But even if that were the case, the economic burden of their inefficiency would be trivial relative to American GDP of $6.5 trillion. The gains to workers would be well worth the loss in output. But certainly none of the Gang of Eight advocates such policies, although they would seem to be called for by Krugman's simple arithmetic. Why?

WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD

The simple arithmetic of what economists call "comparative statics" is technically right but economically wrong. If the domestic economy is to succeed in moving to higher levels of productivity and income, it must first compete successfully in the global economy. Foreign competition simultaneously forces a faster pace of economic change at home and produces opportunities to learn new technologies and new management practices that can be used to improve domestic productivity. Put bluntly, those who don't compete abroad won't be productive at home.

Although he denies saying it, Michael J. Boskin, chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, will go down in history as the man who said, "It doesn't make any difference whether a country makes potato chips or computer chips!" The statement is wrong because wages and rates of return to capital are not everywhere equal.

The real world is in a perpetual state of dynamic disequilibrium where differentials in wages and rate of return to capital by industry are both large and persistent (these above-average wages or returns to capital are technically called disequilibrium quasi-rents). Within manufacturing in 1992 there was an almost four-to-one wage gap between those working in the highest- and lowest-paid industries. The industries at the top and bottom have changed little since World War II. Rates of return to capital similarly ranged from plus 27 percent in pharmaceuticals to minus 26 percent in building materials.

Pharmaceuticals top the rate of return charts every year. The market is always eliminating the high rates of return on existing drugs, but disequilibrium quasi-rents are always being created on new drugs. Because every successful pharmaceutical firm requires huge amounts of time and capital to build physical and human infrastructure, those already in the industry find it relatively easy to stay ahead of those who might seek to enter.

PUTTING PEOPLE FIRST

Those who lost jobs in autos and machine tools as American firms lost market share at home and abroad typically took a 30 to 50 percent wage reduction, if they were young. If they were over 50 years of age, they were usually permanently exiled to the periphery of the low-wage, part-time labor market. Their losses might not be a large faction of GDP, but those losses are important to the millions of affected workers and their families. The correct redress for their problems, however, is not to keep Japanese autos or machine tools out of the American market but to organize ventures such as the government-industry auto battery consortium that seeks to expand the American auto industry's market share by taking the lead in producing tomorrow's electric cars.

Since aircraft manufacturing generates technologies that later spread to the rest of the economy and above-average wages, the United States cannot simply ignore the government-financed European Airbus Industrie challenge in an industry America currently dominates.

The fastest-growing and technologically most exciting industry over the next decade is expected to be the industry that lies at the intersection of telecommunications, computers, television and the media arts. Given this prospect the United States cannot afford to let itself be locked out of the Japanese wireless telecommunications market or permit the Europeans to limit American movies and television programs to 40 percent of their markets. To do so is to make the entire American economy less dynamic and less technologically sophisticated and to generate lower American incomes than would otherwise be the case.

In the traditional theory of comparative advantage, Boskin and Krugman are correct. Natural resource endowments and factor proportions (capital-labor ratios) determine what countries should produce. Governments can and should do little when it comes to international competitiveness. With a world capital market, however, all now essentially borrow in London, New York or Tokyo regardless of where they live. There is no such thing as a capital-rich or capital-poor country. Modern technology has also pushed natural resources out of the competitive equation. Japan, with no coal or iron ore deposits, can have the best steel industry in the world.

This is now a much more dynamic world of brainpower industries and synthesized comparative advantage. Industries such as microelectronics, biotechnology, the new materials industries, telecommunications, civilian aircraft production, machine tools, and computer hardware and software have no natural geographic home. They will be located wherever someone organizes the brainpower to capture them. With man-made comparative advantage, one seeks not to find disequilibrium quasi-rents (the gold mine of yore) but to create the new products and processes that generate above-average wages and rates of return.

In their funding of education, skills and research and development, governments have an important role to play in organizing the brainpower necessary to create economic leadership. Just as military intelligence estimates about U.S.S.R. intentions partly guided yesterday's strategic military research and development, so the actions of U.S. economic competitors will partly guide tomorrow's civilian research and development. If the Japanese have an insurmountable lead in flat-screen video technology, it does not make sense to invest government or private resources or talent in a hopeless attempt to catch up.

The smart private firm benchmarks itself vis-a-vis its best domestic and international competition. Where it is not the world's best, it seeks to adopt the better practices found elsewhere. A smart country will do the same. Is America's investment in plant and equipment, research and development, skills and infrastructure world class? Do American managers, private and public, have something to learn from practices in the rest of the world? The purpose of such benchmarking is not to declare economic warfare on foreign competitors but to emulate them and elevate U.S. standards of performance.

Obsessions are not always wrong or dangerous. A passion for building a world-class economy that is second to none in generating a high living standard for every citizen is exactly what the United States and every other country should seek to achieve. Achieving that goal in any one country in no way stops any other country from doing likewise.

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  • Lester C. Thurow is Professor of Management and Economics at the Alfred P. Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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