Stucknation: Step One, Get Off the Mat

From the outset of Stucknation, I have tried to identify the ways in which our economy is stuck and ways we can get it "unstuck." I know it has to do with losing the personae of powerless "victims" of a macro economy increasingly stacked against us. It seems simple enough: consume less, save and produce more. But how do we do that in an increasingly global, integrated economy?

Of late, the Obama Administration has struck a more muscular stance with our trading partners on everything from currency values to unfair trade practices that can make for a rigged global game.

Just weeks before the midterms, the administration went so far as to act on steelworkers claims that China was violating global trade rules by the way in which it was cornering the green energy tech market. China fired back, saying the U.S. filing was "groundless and irresponsible."

Yet on Main Street, with near double-digit unemployment and ongoing foreclosures, it is easy to feel duped by catch phrases like "it's always better to own than rent" and "global free trade," which once promised prosperity for all.

The other day, I had a chance to run that second shibboleth past the Obama Administration's point man on global trade, U.S. International Trade Representative Ambassador Ron Kirk, the former Mayor of Dallas.    

I told him that to many average working persons, “global free trade” seemed like a way for multinational corporations to get even wealthier while making working people poorer. Were they wrong?

"I'd like to think in the macro case that they are,” Kirk said. “If you frame the question that way, you'd expect most people to say ’I don't like trade.’"

He conceded that the administration hasn't done "a good enough job" driving home the 21st century economic reality that across the country, tens of thousands of small and mid-sized businesses are "suppliers to companies that are selling products around the world."

"You might think of it as for multinationals," benefiting from free trade. “But,” Kirk continued, "do you think of the 8,000 small-to-medium-sized businesses in New Jersey that employ 200, 25, 10 people," locally, that thrive on global trade? Kirk said [global trade] is just where the action is. "95 percent of the world's consumers" don't live in the U.S.

For years, the U.S. trade deficit ballooned while U.S. consumers used their available credit balances to buy whatever landed in stores or whatever they fancied online. But restoring prosperity can't come by consumption alone, according to Ambassador Kirk.

That was the idea behind President Obama's National Export Initiative proposed in January, he said. "We just can't buy stuff. We want to sell things to the world," declared the energetic Kirk. "The President has set for us a goal, 'let’s double our exports over the next five years.'" Kirk predicted that would mean an additional two million new jobs.

Obama’s three-point plan includes increased access to capital for small and mid-size companies, major export promotion and aggressive enforcement of existing trade agreements designed to do things like prevent the theft and piracy of American-created intellectual property.

I have sat through a lot of three point plans and just saying it doesn’t always make it so. For decades, I pointed out to Ambassador Kirk, the demand of capital markets for short-term profits forced the liquidation and export of much of the nation's manufacturing and industrial base. Centers of innovation in the U.S. -- like Bell Labs -- are mere shadows of themselves. I asked Ambassador Kirk if a legacy of that shortsightedness was part of the problem.

"Undoubtedly that is part of it," he responded. "But you can only spend so much time" looking back, he said.

And then, in one paragraph and with one sip of tea, he offered a concise closing argument on behalf of the President's first two years.

"The Recovery Act, TARP, health care reform, education reform" and saving Detroit, "everything this President has done has been with an eye towards the future of regaining and restoring America's competitiveness," he said. "I think Americans are starting to understand if we don't have an auto industry, you probably don't have a steel industry," he concluded.

So, with just days left before the midterm elections, it turns out there is an Obama Jobs plan. Talk about real-time delivery. Now, let's see if voters sign for it.

Listen to Bob Hennelly's interview with U.S. International Trade Representative Ambassador Ron Kirk, above.