The Great Recession rolls on, but it’s not too early to single out the major powers that have come through the wreckage in the best shape. They are the ones the other major nations implore for help -- to bail out weaker economies, to diminish their dominance of the world’s production and start consuming more themselves. There are just two such nations: China and Germany.
Global unemployment might remain stratospheric, but in China, long-suppressed wages are finally increasing for millions of industrial workers. China’s stimulus -- effectively the world’s largest -- has funded bullet trains, airports and wind turbines. In Germany, unemployment has been running a point or two below ours, and exports remain high. Thanks to its favorable trade balance, Germany’s finances are the strongest in Europe.
Germany and China don’t have a lot in common. Germany has a mature economy and is a stultifyingly stable democracy. China has a rising economy and remains disturbingly authoritarian. What sets them apart from the world’s other major powers, purely and simply, is manufacturing. Their predominantly industrial economies meet their own needs and those of other nations, and have made them flourish while others flounder.
This used to be true of United States, too. In 1960, manufacturing accounted for a quarter of our gross domestic product and employed 26 percent of the labor force. Today, manufacturing has shriveled to 11 percent of GDP.
For the past three decades, with few exceptions, America’s CEOs, financiers, establishment economists and editorialists assured us that the transition from a manufacturing to a post-industrial economy was both inevitable and positive: American workers would move to more productive jobs, and the nation’s financial security would only grow. But after rising steadily during the quarter-century following World War II, wages have stagnated since the manufacturing sector began to contract.
Increasingly, it’s our most productive jobs that are being offshored. Until 2001, the United States exported more advanced technology than it imported, but since then, as Clyde Prestowitz reports in “The Betrayal of American Prosperity,” his persuasive new book on the need for an American industrial policy, we’ve been running annual high-tech deficits that reached $61 billion in 2008. Worse yet, as we lose manufacturing, which employed 63 percent of our scientists and engineers in 2007, we lose many of our most valuable professionals. Last year, reported Business Week, the number of employed scientists and engineers fell 6.3 percent while overall employment fell 4.1 percent.
Most Americans, I suspect, believe we’re losing manufacturing because we can’t compete against cheap Chinese labor. But Germany has remained a manufacturing giant notwithstanding the rise of East Asia, making high-end products with a work force that is more unionized and better paid than ours. German exports came to $1.1 trillion in 2009 -- roughly $125 billion more than we exported, though there are just 82 million Germans to our 310 million Americans. Germany’s yearly trade balance went from a deficit of $6 billion in 1998 to a surplus of $267 billion in 2008 -- the same year the United States ran a trade deficit of $569 billion. Over those same 10 years, Germany’s annual growth rate per capita exceeded ours.
Germany has increased its edge in world-class manufacturing even as we have squandered ours because its model of capitalism is superior to our own. For one thing, its financial sector serves the larger economy, not just itself. The typical German company has a long-term relationship with a single bank -- and for the smaller manufacturers that are the backbone of the German economy, those relationships are likely with one of Germany’s 431 savings banks, each of them a local institution with a municipally appointed board, that shun capital markets and invest their depositors’ savings in upgrading local enterprises. By American banking standards, the savings banks are incredibly dull. But they didn’t lose money in the financial panic of 2008 and have financed an industrial sector that makes ours look anemic by comparison.
So even as Germany and China have been busily building, and selling us, high-speed trains, photovoltaic cells and lithium-ion batteries, we’ve spent the past decade, at the direction of our CEOs and bankers, shuttering 50,000 factories and springing credit-default swaps on an unsuspecting world. That’s not to say our CEOs and bankers are conscious agents of foreign powers. But given what they’ve done to America, they might as well have been.
Harold Meyerson writes about politics and policy for the Washington Post. email@example.com