Chamber of Commerce: U.S. Can Trade Its Way to Growth

The United States economy will ratchet up growth in 2011 and double job creation, predicted Thomas Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a speech today on the state of American business.

Much of the speech went over familiar reasons for optimism and pessimism (states finances, real estate, and oil prices) for the economy. There were also standard warnings about the threat of overactive regulations; for example, Donohue called to repeal health care reform and stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.

The most interesting and detailed section of his speech addressed exports. President Obama announced a goal to double U.S. exports in five years -- a bold but not impossible stride, considering the strength of developing markets like China and Brazil and our low starting point after the collapse in world trade during the recession. Between the second quarters of 2009 and 2010, exports grew 14 percent. At 15 percent annual growth, we would double exports after five years.

Donohue is right to focus on obstacles to trade. Our export control rules can make life hell for manufacturers of products like, say, rudders, that the feds want to protect for defense or technological reasons. The United States has an interest in protecting its "crown jewel" technologies, but there is a trade off: the more products we control, the fewer we sell for money overseas.

Obstacles for U.S. companies -- a depressingly small number of whom consider exporting viable -- extend beyond the export control process. A wise export strategy would probably combine reform at the export control level with increased advocacy and funding for small companies looking for overseas clients. After all, it's easy for a Des Moines company to find Des Moines clients. But how should they find and tap markets deep in Brazil, Mexico, and Korea? Small companies need information, contacts, and a roadmap for success that trade organizations can provide. After that, many of them need financing from organizations like the U.S. Export-Import bank, which guarantees loans and payments for U.S. exporters.

But ultimately, exports are like the rest of the U.S. economy: They rise and fall on demand. As Treasury officials have pointed out to me, the most important indicator for U.S. overseas trade is overseas growth. U.S. exports to Brazil, India, and China increased by 121 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 2003 and 2008 (while US exports increased 46 percent), but they accounted for only 9 percent of US exports in 2008. With Europe expected to undergo an excruciating year of budget atonement, the Chamber, and its businesses, should start rooting for the developing world.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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