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Strength in numbers

" ... see 2005 growth in the range of 2 to 3%; 28% see it running even higher ..."

When I attend a gathering of industry officials, I don’t talk too much. This is in part my nature, and partly a strategy. I have lots of opinions, but I realized long ago I’d learn more by listening than by talking, and working as a reporter/editor/commentator in a subject about which I have no technical or practical expertise has only reinforced that lesson. But, a few weeks back a subject came up that provoked me.

Chatting with two well-informed men the conversation covered the usual subjects of common and general interest. China, of course: the state of its industries, economy, and society, and the future development of all these. You’ve probably been part of a similar discussion, too. It seems always to lead to someone making a dire prediction about our own prospects.

“In 10 years or so,” opined one of these men, “the U.S. will be like Great Britain.” He meant that as a nation we’re self-serving and shortsighted. As a group, we no longer value a strong, diverse national economy: we want “entitlements” and aren’t concerned that virtually every consumer product may be imported from some low-cost offshore supplier. He worried about the availability of domestic resources, questioned the opportunities for U.S. manufacturers, and doubted the resilience of the economy for combating foreign competition.

I, for one, am unsettled by the volume and variety of low-cost imports available at the big discount stores. I’ve kept track of the manufacturing sector for the past decade or so and know the trend lines. I’ve watched as “legacy costs” brought down the basic industries (metals, mining), and how they’re now tearing into the big manufacturing segment (autos, aerospace.)

What surprised me was the certainty of this well-informed man. “Like Great Britain?” Not a chance. We may be shortsighted and self-serving people, but this is not an economy or society that will accept central planning. We compete with each other as much as we do with foreign nations. When California set about regulating industries, industries moved to other states. When Alabama and other states recruited automakers and their suppliers, they created a tide of foreign investment and regional expansions. I believe the same competitive impulse will continue to find outlets, leading eventually to wiser tax and regulatory policies, more qualified workforces, and better access to investment capital.

I pointed this out and got some general agreement, but it later occurred to me that there’s something more important than being unlike Great Britain. We’re unlike China in some critical ways, too. We’re not expanding our prosperity by undermining anyone else’s. We know that success is not a limited commodity.

All this came back to me when I read the results of a survey conducted earlier this spring by the National Association of Manufacturers. Across all sectors, 53% of respondents see 2005 economic growth in the range of 2 to 3%; 28% see it running even higher than that. More encouraging, 66% of all respondents see manufacturing expanding at a rate equal to or better than the overall economy. More than half (53%) have plans to increase capital spending this year, mostly (64%) to modernize their equipment or increase efficiency.

I hope the respondents are right, but the lesson I draw from this is that no one’s opinion is the last word. The strength of our way of living and working is the outlook we share, and the way we encourage each other to bring that outlook to life.

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