Whenever you hear a business executive or politician use the term "American competitiveness," watch your wallet. Few terms in public discourse have gone so directly from obscurity to meaninglessness without any intervening period of coherence.
President Obama just appointed Jeffry Immelt, GE's CEO, to head his outside panel of economic advisors, replacing Paul Volcker. According to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, Immelt has "agreed to work through what makes our country more competitive."
In an opinion piece for the Washington Post announcing his acceptance, Immelt wrote "there is nothing inevitable about America's declining manufacturing competitiveness if we work together to reverse it."
But what's American "competitiveness" and how do you measure it? Here are some different definitions:
- It's American exports. Okay, but the easiest way for American companies to increase their exports from the US is for their American-made products to become cheaper internationally. And for them to reduce the price of their American-made stuff they have to cut their costs of production in here. Their biggest cost is their payrolls. So it follows that the simplest way for them to become more "competitive" is to cut their payrolls -- either by substituting software and automated machinery for their US workers, or getting (or forcing) their US workers to accept wage and benefit cuts.
It's politically important for President Obama, as for any president, to be available to American business, and to avoid the moniker of being "anti-business." But the president must not be seduced into believing -- and must not allow the public to be similarly seduced into thinking -- that the well-being of American business is synonymous with the well-being of Americans.
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