Jon Rynn

 

Recent Posts by Jon Rynn

  • The Trade Deficit is the Most Important Deficit

    Jul 25, 2011Jon Rynn

    deficit-100Closing the budget gap will require a progressive industrial policy, not regressive spending cuts.

    deficit-100Closing the budget gap will require a progressive industrial policy, not regressive spending cuts.

    Between 1962 and 2009, the cumulative trade deficit of the United States almost exactly equaled the cumulative Federal budget deficit: 7,426 billion for the budget deficit, a couple of billion less for the trade deficit. That is, when you add up all the deficit numbers for those 28 years, both the trade deficits and the budget deficits have generated the same amount of red ink. The Republican House members, in particular, use fear-mongering to convince the public that the federal budget deficit is going to destroy the economy. But what about the trade deficit?

    As Marshall Auerback and others have been arguing, focusing on cutting the federal budget deficit during an economic downturn can harm the economy, putting people out of work, for one thing. Our government discovered this in 1937, when a push to balance the budget led to a mini-Depression. But tanking the economy is exactly what is being discussed in Washington; every alternative on the table involves cutting spending, which will cut jobs, which will lead to even less revenues for the government, bigger deficits, and even more job losses.

    We need to narrow the federal budget deficit by growing the economy, which generates wealth, part of which is then used for more revenue for the government. Narrowing the budget deficit by slashing spending will actually increase the deficit. In addition, a default on the debt, if it sent the dollar into a tailspin, would make the trade deficit much worse because we would have to pay much more for all of our imported goods, and thus, the standard of living for most Americans would go down.

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    Closing the trade deficit, on the other hand, would actually create millions of jobs. In 2007, for instance, the trade deficit – that is, the difference between the goods and services we sell to the world, and the goods and services we buy – was about 700 billion dollars, according to the Economic Report of the President (Table B-24). The deficit in goods was about 800 billion. In 2007, there were 13.9 million people working in the manufacturing sector, down from 16.5 million in 2001, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics (we are now at 11.5 million). Since the gross output of the manufacturing sector in 2007 was about $5 trillion (that is, including all the services, etc. that go into the price of manufactured goods), that means that the US could have increased manufacturing employment by about 1/6th (800 billion into 5 trillion), or about 2.25 million workers, had it made all the goods that were imported. According to the Economic Policy Institute, for each manufacturing job, the economy creates almost three more. So eliminating the trade deficit could have reduced the unemployment rate by almost 10 million – or, as of June 2011, about 70% of the 14 million officially unemployed workers in the United States.

    We can close the trade deficit by engaging in a serious industrial policy, one which will pull the manufacturing sector back up by rebuilding the infrastructure to prevent the worst of global warming and wean us away from oil, as I have argued. If, for instance, the government guarantees a 20 year infrastructure rebuilding program, that might help to convince the banks and corporations that it is prudent to invest the 2 trillion dollars that they are currently sitting on. They would know that they had a market for the output of their investments, and they would be assured that American workers would have the purchasing power to buy their output.

    There has been a long-running argument that federal budget deficits contribute to trade deficits, but trade deficits expanded in the 1990s when the federal budget went into surplus. I would argue that the trade deficit is caused by the decline of manufacturing in the United States, which has a variety of causes, and is only marginally affected by the increased demand caused by a budget deficit. In any case, by creating millions of jobs in the long-term, a program of job creation would lead to a lower budget deficit, in the long-term.

    To put it simply, rebuilding the manufacturing sector could lift us out of the Great Recession. On the other hand, focusing on cutting the federal budget deficit at this stage will lead us to the Lesser Depression, as Paul Krugman calls it. Hopefully this news will arrive in DC soon, or we will be in big trouble.

    Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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  • Rebuilding the Dream One House Meeting at a Time

    Jul 20, 2011Jon Rynn

    On June 18th Van Jones gave a rousing speech at Netroots Nation, calling for a new effort to “Rebuild the American Dream”.

    On June 18th Van Jones gave a rousing speech at Netroots Nation, calling for a new effort to “Rebuild the American Dream”. Moveon.org and several other organizations have come together to build a new movement to rebuild the American dream, and this past weekend, 25,000 people went to over 1500 house parties to talk about a potential set of issues that could constitute a “Contract for the American Dream”. My wife and I headed down to Greenwich Village for one of the many completely filled house meetings. As one of our group summed up the meeting, it was a “good” meeting, one we were happy to attend.

    The meeting was divided into three parts, and I was wondering how a bunch of New Yorkers would handle such “touchy-feely” questions for first part, such as: “Tell a story about you or a friend and how you were affected by the economic downturn”.  Or: “What moment most made you proud to be an American?”. Our group wound up talking more about how much we had expected of Obama before he was elected, Andrew Cuomo’s presidential ambitions, and how we could possibly find candidates that might move in a progressive direction -- which led us naturally to the main part of the evening, rating 40 ideas that might become part of the “Contract for an American Dream”.

    The nice problem was that almost all of the ideas were very good ones. I hope that Rebuild the Dream and Moveon don’t overly narrow the focus of their efforts, and keep most of the 40 ideas in some form. I know Moveon has successfully used the strategy of focusing on a few key issues at a time. However, I think that for a serious, broad-based movement that might actually, like the Tea Party, back various candidates, it is important to have a longer list. Perhaps a few major ideas could be the focus, with a longer list of very important issues that could be linked with the larger themes.

    We were directed to pick three out of 10 ideas, from four groups (you can see the full list several pages into this PDF). First up was what seems to be the overriding focus of Rebuild the Dream, that is, “good jobs now”. I think that this is the correct number one focus, since it is clearly the number one concern of the American public, and I think it is our number one economic problem. Our house meeting picked “Move toward a clean, green, independent energy future”, “Invest in America's infrastructure”, and “Stop paying corporations to offshore American Jobs” as our top three. This list also included ideas about investing in transit, as well; I think the overarching theme here is to rebuild the infrastructure.

    From the list called “We pay our share”, the meeting chose “Return to fairer tax rates”, “Make Social Security solvent”, and “Be sure corporations pay their taxes”. There were several other good ideas, such as stopping subsidies to dirty energy and higher taxes for capital gains and a tax on financial transactions.

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    For “Strong Communities”, the clear winners seemed to be “Medicare for all”, “Substantially reduce military spending”, and “Invest in public education”, with “Protect women's rights and health” as a runner-up, and there were other good ideas like universal childcare and pro-family work policies.

    Finally, “Working Democracy” elicited support for “Eliminate corporate personhood”, “Reinstate common sense rules of the road for Wall Street” – such as reinstating Glass-Steagall – and “Place elections into the hands of everyday people”, which seems to boil down to public financing of elections.

    I heard that when the ideas are all tallied, the final mix will be discussed with various “liberal economists”. Hopefully these will include the economists associated with the Roosevelt Insititute, such as James Galbraith and Joseph Stiglitz – and then the final list will be presented in August.

    I think that it is enormously important to start an effort such as this, something that can pull together the various strands of the progressive community, which will directly tackle the economic problems of our day. Progressives have tended to leave the larger economic questions to the Right, at least since the 1950s, and I think it is critical to take back this central social debate.

    So my advice would be to think big – both in terms of ideas, and in terms of money. If Rebuild the Dream winds up advocating 10 billion to be spent here and 10 billion to be spent there, it won’t add up to enough to really turn the economy around. I would urge the organization to think in terms of trillions of dollars, not billions – say, a program of one trillion dollars per year for 10 or 20 years, to rebuild the infrastructure and thereby re-establish manufacturing.

    The importance of manufacturing was not mentioned in any of the lists, but it can easily be a part of the infrastructure rebuilding effort, as long as domestic manufacturing is required for all of the trains, roads, buildings, wind turbines, and other physical structures and equipment that are required for a re-haul of the infrastructure.

    The entry for “investing in the infrastructure” mentioned the idea of an Infrastructure Bank, an idea that I am sure President Obama would like to roll out in a big way. There has been talk of starting with 10 to 30 billion dollars for the Bank, but again, I would start off with one trillion dollars for the bank -- which the Bank, like any bank, could simply create, while charging little or even no interest for the loans. As long as money is used to create more wealth, money creation does not lead to inflation. Quite the opposite, a rebuilt infrastructure and manufacturing economy would generate enough wealth to soak up, not only the loans, but much of the public deficit that Washington DC is, unfortunately, obsessed with right now.

    Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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  • A Fracking Mess: Natural Gas is Not the Fuel of the Future

    Jul 5, 2011Jon Rynn

    earth-150Between questionable science, health hazards, and exorbitant costs, there's no fracking way that drilling for natural gas will solve our long-term energy issues.

    earth-150Between questionable science, health hazards, and exorbitant costs, there's no fracking way that drilling for natural gas will solve our long-term energy issues.

    Natural gas is being touted as a fuel of the future, a way to bridge the gap between a dirty energy and clean energy economy. But according to numerous articles and a report from David Hughes at the Post-Carbon Institute, what we may have is another bridge to nowhere (page numbers in this post refer to Hughes' study). Fracking, the rapidly expanding technique for pulling natural gas out of the ground, may be worse for global warming than coal, ultimately very expensive, and not productive enough to make much of a difference in natural gas supply anyway.

    Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a 60-year old technique that has recently been applied to the huge deposits of what is called shale, a form of rock that can contain large amounts of natural gas or oil. Now natural gas companies are drilling thousands of these wells, fracturing the shale, and pumping millions of gallons of water laced with hundreds of chemicals to release the natural gas (pages 22-24).

    While burning natural gas emits about half the greenhouse gases of coal, transporting, processing, and delivering that gas significantly reduces its advantages. And methane -- natural gas -- is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide for about 20 years. According to a recent study and other research, shale gas actually leads to more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional drilling.

    The main problem seems to be that the drilling companies and trucking companies do a sloppy job and let gas escape into the atmosphere – and into drinking water.  This was best exemplified in the movie GasLand, which showed that people near drilling sites could light their tap water on fire.

    An enormous controversy has erupted around this technique, with some making accusations of potentially catastrophic environmental impacts, while others call fracking a ”game changer." A new study shows that drinking water near fracking sites contains large amounts of natural gas, while proponents claim that none of the toxic chemicals that make up the fracking mixture have contaminated water supplies.  New York State has temporarily banned the procedure, although Governor Cuomo has indicated he will lift the ban for most of the state. New Jersey (and France) will probably ban it. The EPA is still studying the issue, but Dick Cheney and company made sure that fracking is not covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and states have less expertise, money and motivation to monitor the situation.

    The Federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) gets more and more bullish about the prospects for shale gas, recently claiming that 45% of natural gas in this country will come from shale gas by 2034.  Currently, the number is only 25% (pages 28-30). But according to the New York Times, this opinion is contested from within the agency itself. There are signs that the EIA is following the lead of the natural gas industry, not doing independent research. Meanwhile, the current price for natural gas, about 4 dollars per thousand cubic feet (mcf), is below the level needed to make shale gas profitable for most drilling – costs estimates range from a bit over 4 dollars to an average of 7 dollars and even 11 dollars per mcf (page 31). And many fracking firms are now moving to drill for oil, not gas, because the price for gas is too low to justify the added expense.

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    Some fracking advocates claim that we could switch our transportation system to be natural gas based. But to do that would require a doubling of our natural gas production (pages 52-54). Despite all the hype, even the EIA seems to think that natural gas production in this country will only increase from about 24 trillion cubic feet to about 26 trillion by 2034 (page 29). That isn't enough to even keep up with the anticipated demand, and basically shale gas production will make up for declining conventional gas production, assuming there is as much shale gas as advertised. As David Hughes explains, the EIA is grossly underestimating the amount of wells that would have to be drilled. Recently that number has climbed as high as 30,000 per year(page 19). If half of those use fracking techniques, and a good percentage of those use millions of gallons of water that become toxic – well, it certainly doesn't sound like a very sustainable solution.

    Even if we wanted to make the switch, getting gas from there to here poses its own challenges.  The only way to do it is with liquified natural gas (LNG); that is, cooling it way down to liquid form, putting it on a big ship that keeps it cool, and warming it back up when it gets here. It has been estimated that LNG adds enough greenhouse gas emissions that the natural gas has about the same emissions as coal. It is also more expensive than domestic gas, and it also means the US would become dependent on nations like Qatar, Russia, and -- hmmm, Iran -- than we might want to be.

    Another strike against natural gas: wind is getting very cost competitive. Wind could form the backbone of a national electrical system, with gas used for those times when there isn't enough wind blowing – although the more wind built in the more places, the less gas would be needed for this purpose. A new report suggests that solar panels on buildings could be used to substitute for gas used at peak usage times, say when air conditioners are going full blast, at pretty close to the same price.

    There is one interesting technology that could make natural gas more sustainable: microturbines. These are systems that are installed in a large building -- say, an apartment building that has 60 or more apartments, according to the New York Times. These can use any source of natural gas, such as natural gas generated from a building's own waste, or from landfills. And because the turbine is in the building, the heat from the turbine can be used to heat air and water, in a process called co-generation. Up to about 80% of the energy from natural gas can be captured by these units, as opposed to the miserable 32% or so when centralized gas or coal plants generate electricity. Many European countries, such as Denmark, use district heating, a method of using the heat from energy production to warm neighborhoods. This is a reason that density in cities and towns can be more efficient than sprawl.

    Even if natural gas emitted “only” half the greenhouse gases of coal, or if fracking turns out to be not as toxic as feared, and relatively profitable, natural gas would still not be a “game changer”: we need to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, not put any more in; we shouldn't be endangering our water supplies. and we can find renewable sources of energy that, in the long run, make much more economic sense. Not only will natural gas not be the fuel of the future, we won't be using much fuel. Instead we will use renewable sources of energy from the sun, wind, and the earth.

    Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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  • What Conservatives Don't Want You to Know About Government's Role in the Economy

    Jun 28, 2011Jon Rynn

    fdr-we-need-you-200If we don't learn the lessons from the Great Depression, our infrastructure will crumble, the recovery will stagnate, and our economy will be left behind.

    fdr-we-need-you-200If we don't learn the lessons from the Great Depression, our infrastructure will crumble, the recovery will stagnate, and our economy will be left behind.

    The current conventional wisdom for many in the U.S. is that the less government is involved with the economy the better. But this is precisely the moment in history when more government is needed. Without government intervention, the recovery will continue to stagnate, the economy as a whole will remain off balance, and we won't be able to meet the challenges facing the country.

    I have been proposing a different way of looking at an economy than the traditional, neoclassic one. In my view, each industry fits into a wider system, as say trees or deer or bears fit into a wider forest ecosystem. In the same way, goods manufacturing, machinery industries, service industries, infrastructure, and the myriad other parts of a functioning society -- including the health and education systems -- have to work properly in order for the economy as a whole to function, with manufacturing functioning as the central sector. All industries are co-evolving, dynamically growing, concentrated within discrete geographical regions. And it is the responsibility of government to help orchestrate this interaction, or else it can turn into an ugly riot.

    But at the root of the neoclassical world view is the idea that the economic system is self-regulating, that is, if the economy is pushed off course by "external" forces, then it will become stable by itself -- without government interference. And yet we know that economies are constantly growing and changing -- that is, they are not stable -- and they are often under threat of recession and depression. That is why governments always have to be part of the solution. They are needed in order to support economic growth, maintain the right structure of the economy, and intervene when the economy goes bad.

    FDR's presidency is the perfect example of this. When he became president, Herbert Hoover had just spent several years trying to reverse the Great Depression with market-based solutions, but FDR championed a set of governmental policies that turned the country around. To deal with unemployment, FDR established the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, which was not only designed to employ one fully able member of each household in which no one could find work, but also to build up the country's physical infrastructure. Building infrastructure is what governments do best. In fact, one could say that civilization started when the first governments constructed the irrigation and drainage systems that enabled agriculture to flourish. The United States, like every successful country, has a long and rich history of infrastructure building, without which the country would have very likely stayed poor. From canals like the Erie Canal before the Civil War, to the railroads after, from the dams that even conservative Republicans like Calvin Coolidge initiated, to the WPA that built libraries, schools, airports, roads, and other structures in virtually every town, to the Interstate Highway System championed by a Republican president, the United States has kept itself at the forefront of the global economy by making the building of transportation, energy, communications, water, education, and other systems the foundation of prosperity.

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    Partly as a result of his interventions into the economy, FDR was able to lead the nation into World War II by fundamentally transforming the economy to produce military equipment. At its height, one third of the country's GDP was devoted to the war effort, with millions fighting overseas. That's five trillion dollars in today's economy. In other words, even assuming the continuation of a one trillion dollar military budget in the face of no wars of necessity, the economy has four trillion dollars left over to remake itself while providing for a comfortable standard of living for its inhabitants.

    Instead of learning this lesson of history, however, our current political class seems determined to follow Herbert Hoover, not FDR. Meanwhile, the long-term domestic problems we face are worse than what FDR confronted. In the 1930s, the US was by far the leading manufacturing power and the top producer of oil; now the manufacturing sector is sinking fast, and not only do we import almost two-thirds of the crude oil we process, the global supply of oil is becoming harder to produce and is shrinking. In addition, we desperately need to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and transform agriculture and forest management in order to avoid the worst of global warming. The path forward is clear: we need an electric transportation system based on high-speed rail for long-distance travel, electric rail for freight, transit and small electric cars for intra-city movement, wind and solar power for electricity generation, recycling on a serious and massive scale, a densification of urban areas, and a more labor-intensive, localized, organic agricultural system. And these could provide the market for a revived manufacturing sector.

    Only the government can build all of these systems in the time needed to both save the economy and save the environment. Incentives can go part of the way, but not fast or far enough. Taxing carbon or trading rights to carbon won't solve global warming or decrease the use of oil as quickly as we need them to; lowering taxes or reducing the deficit won't bring the manufacturing sector back. Government-as-builder does not mean government-as-warrior or government-as-Big-Brother. It is possible to have a strong government that is peaceful, democratic, and not beholden to our economic royalists, as we currently are. But maintaining democracy is never easy; the political system is no more a self-regulating system than is the economy. At least we can have a clear vision of where we are heading.

    History doesn't care if the political conversation of the United States won't allow for talk about large-scale government intervention into the economy. The path to economic and ecological collapse is paved with "realistic" intentions. If the conservatives can be audacious enough to threaten policies that will further destroy the middle class and poor for the sake of the superwealthy, why can't progressives draw on a rich American history, from before FDR and after, to rebuild a once mighty nation and help the rest of the planet move toward a sustainable future?

    Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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  • Globalization? Fuggedaboutit. Regionalization is the Key to a Prospering Planet.

    Jun 20, 2011Jon Rynn

    earth-150Jon Rynn continues his exploration of what a manufacturing-centered economy might look like, arguing that keeping production concentrated in smaller areas can bring wealth to all.

    earth-150Jon Rynn continues his exploration of what a manufacturing-centered economy might look like, arguing that keeping production concentrated in smaller areas can bring wealth to all.

    We often hear that a globalized economy is the best kind of economy. But could a world economy based on a set of strong regional systems, each one centered around a thriving manufacturing sector, serve us better in the long run? I argued in the first post of this series that economies are ecosystems, and that manufacturing is a necessary part of an economic ecosystem. In my second post, I proposed that manufacturing underlies economic growth, and machinery can allow us to have ecologically sustainable growth. Now I want to pursue how the innovation that underlies beneficial manufacturing growth is dependent on the close proximity of the various “niches” of the economic ecosystem, and what this means to our perception of how the global economy functions best.

    Despite the rhetoric of globalization, the wealthiest economies have historically been regionally based. By “region," I mean a geographically contiguous area, separated from others by a barrier. The premiere example of this is the United States. Europe is another natural region, which has now integrated itself formally, although it was always integrated in fact. Japan, China, and India are also always considered separate economies. In fact, the regions that have the least cohesion are the poorest, such as Africa. While Africa is a natural economic region, it has been “integrated” into the world economy at great expense because its various pieces have become resource-generating appendages of wealthy, regional economies, instead of remaining parts of a manufacturing-centered, integrated African economy. The same could be said for the Middle East; Latin America is somewhere in between and is part of the global “lower middle class” as a result. The post-Soviet set of countries of central Eurasia are poorer than their oppressive predecessor partly because they are not as integrated as they used to be.

    What are the advantages of operating in a contiguous geographic area? After all, according to neoclassical economic theory, an exchange is an exchange is an exchange, whether it is between a customer and a local store or WalMart and a supplier in China. The problem is that an economy is composed of both exchange and production; you have to have something produced before you can exchange it. And like an ecosystem, production relies on many sub-networks of production and exchange that require a physically close set of interactions, particularly when it comes to innovation.

    Innovation can be seen as the product of three main sets of “human capital” -- scientists, engineers, and skilled production workers. Scientists create a “stock of knowledge," to use Simon Kuznets' phrase. This stock of knowledge is used by engineers, who design the machinery and processes that are used in the factories and construction sites and other sites of production. Skilled production workers then use these factories and other production centers to create the wealth that societies survive on.

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    Just as it would make no sense in a natural ecosystem such as a forest to have the trees in one place, the deer that eat the leaves in another place, and the bears that eat the deer in yet a third place, so it makes no sense to have the scientists, engineers, and skilled production workers spread out all over the globe, with little or no interaction. It is one of the great ironies of modern economic life that the industry that is perhaps doing the most to disperse these groups, the financial industry, is so geographically concentrated that it can simply be referred to by a single street, “Wall Street." The financial industry concentrates itself for the same reason whole regions work best in a geographically bounded area: the main players can talk to each other, observe first-hand the processes that underlie their industry, and very quickly change practices as the larger environment, or ecosystem, puts pressure on the industry to change.

    Engineering and research centers are now moving from the United States to China, just as factories have moved. These moves increase innovative capacity when researchers and engineers can interact with and witness first-hand the operation of machinery and factories, talk to other engineers and skilled production workers, and take advantage of the serendipity and unexpected encounters that also make cities the centers of innovation, as Jane Jacobs emphasized in her books. It isn't just within one industry that these interactions are beneficial, but also when several industries interact within a city region, as, say, publishing, fashion, and (now only some) manufacturing have in the history of New York City.

    So couldn't each city region then replicate the entire set of industries? City regions aren't large enough to provide everything they need; trade is critical to production. In the US, for instance, different city regions have specialized in different industries. I mentioned New York City, but Cincinnati was known for machine tools, Pittsburgh for steel, of course Detroit for cars, and we have had Silicon Valley, an outgrowth of the San Francisco economy, as the premiere example of a center of innovation. The idea is to have a large enough area to encompass all of the various niches of an economic ecosystem, and also one that is small enough to encourage a rich network of interactions.

    In order for this weaving together of city regions to occur, the government has to create a transportation network. The Interstate Highway System served this purpose after World War II, as the railroad system did before (and as I have argued, probably will again sometime in the future). A communications network is also necessary, again generally either run by governments or supported by them.

    Governments have historically also protected their territories economically and militarily in order to allow these regional production networks to grow to the point where they can compete globally. When governments bind together areas in this way, the regional economy becomes strong enough that global trade is actually increased. You need a world class production system before you can trade manufactured products, and governments have historically been a crucial builder of those regional economies -- as I shall argue in my next post. On the other hand, when a country like the United States allows its manufacturing base to be exported, it will open up yawning trade deficits, and eventually, slide into poverty. The choice is ours.

    Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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