Should America be competitive?
Over the weekend, President Obama sent an e-mail to his Organizing for America list previewing the State of the Union. “My No. 1 focus,” he said, “is going to be making sure that we are competitive. ... I will talk to the nation about how we can win the future by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building the rest of the world." So there it is, then: "Competitiveness." That's what American economic policy is going to be about. The question is, competitive how?
One definition of competitive refers to a level of performance. If you're a runner, you become more competitive in your next race by training harder and getting faster. That's certainly the Obama administration's agenda: They want to do a better job educating American workers and investing in American infrastructure and improving American institutions. They want us to run faster.
Things get hairier, however, if you take the other definition of competitive: The one that describes how you think rather than how you perform. A competitive mindset suggests that for you to win, others must lose. It's zero-sum, even though the economy isn't. And that's where the Obama administration's rhetoric is going.
Presenting your policies as a defense against other nations -- "we can win the future by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building the rest of the world" -- allows you to wrap your economic agenda in a potent form of nationalism. The rise of China makes Americans very uncomfortable. More than 60 percent see China as "a threat to American jobs and economic security." Only 29 percent see it as an opportunity for investment and new markets.
These are the fears Obama is playing on when he talks about winning the future. But the future isn't something you win. It's something you share. If China's growth slows, it means the country will continue to provide an endless supply of cheap labor without ever getting rich enough to buy American goods. We may "win" in the sense of having the largest GDP. But that's a worse future than one in which China becomes a major customer, reducing our trade deficit and creating a lot of American jobs.
There's also a dark side to this sort of thinking: One way you win a race is to be the fastest. Another way is to knock out your competitors. The Obama administration, of course, isn't looking to turn America into the Tonya Harding of the global economy by shutting down trade or getting into currency wars. But there are plenty of folks out there would would, knowingly or not, push us in that direction under the misguided notion that we're locked in some struggle with China.
The White House is working hard to declare that territory off-limits. "Here’s the truth about today’s economy," Obama said in his weekend radio address. "If we’re serious about fighting for American jobs and American businesses, one of the most important things we can do is open up more markets to American goods around the world." And it's not as if talk of competitiveness is unknown in American politics: In the 2006 State of the Union, George W. Bush announced the "American Competitiveness Institute." So maybe this is just good messaging that allows the Obama administration to wrap a public investment agenda in the flag. Maybe.
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