Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Outsourcing Watch: High-Tech Trade At Risk

According to The Christian Science Monitor, America has for the first time started running a high tech 'trade deficit'. It should be noted that the loss from manufacturing more than offsets the surplus from services in hi-tech according to the article, and it reports that there is a consensus that this gap will grow in the future.

Exports fail to keep pace with imports, stirring concern about a key fount of jobs.

By David R. Francis | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For the first time on record, the United States has a deficit in high-tech trade, prompting concern about American competitiveness in key job-producing industries from biotechnology to aerospace.
That deficit appears to be widening, fueled in part by the trend of offshore outsourcing in areas such as software design. As computer parts have become commodities, production has long since moved to places such as Taiwan and, now, to China.

Trade gaps have opened in scientific instruments and in specialized industrial machinery. In commercial airplanes, among the most sophisticated of machines, America remains an export powerhouse, but Europe's Airbus consortium as of this year is selling more planes than Boeing.

By itself, a trade deficit is not necessarily a major problem for US industry, but experts worry that it symbolizes a deeper risk that America may fall behind in some of the very areas it is counting on for high-wage jobs.

"People are going to be surprised how rapidly this develops," says Charles McMillion, a Washington consulting economist.

During the second half of 2003, the US imported nearly $17.5 billion more than it exported in "advanced technology" products. That shortfall in goods was not fully offset by a high-tech trade surplus in services, including royalties, totaling $16 billion. That gap persisted during this year's first quarter, and will probably grow, Mr. McMillion says.

Ten industries fall under the Commerce Department's definition of high-tech production: biotechnology, life sciences, optoelectronics, information and communications, electronics, flexible manufacturing, advanced materials, aerospace, weapons, and nuclear technology.

During the 1990s, American workers were told that if US lower-skill manufacturing jobs were lost abroad, they would be replaced by better-paying jobs in new higher-tech areas as long as they upgraded their skills to qualify for these jobs.

Now high-tech jobs, too, are increasingly moving overseas. Many countries are becoming more sophisticated in high-tech production, often with the help of graduates from the best American technological universities.

There are two important factors at work here. First as I've documented before America is both in relative and absolute terms losing the competitive race to stay #1 in scientific and technical areas in every conceivable metric from K-12 education, Ph.D. production rates, scientific journal submissions, etc. Now we are beginning to see that impact our status as leader in scientific and technical areas, with more and more foreign countries taking over our own markets and our companies gradually getting squeezed in other countries. We are in deathly danger of losing our competitive edge, and this is partly being covered for by a rhetoric and ideology of 'free trade' that magically assumes that we can stay ahead even if we aren't making the necessary investments and changes to keep up with other countries. This is a false assumption and hard evidence of this erosion of our prosperity and power is beginning to appear. Will we listen in time? I'm not sure.

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