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State of the Union shows Obama is now pro-business. He should be pro-growth.

In last night's State of the Union address, President Obama urged greater US competitiveness. But there's a big difference between cozying up to businesses and promoting policies that foster economic growth.

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This abuse of language is further fostered by the habit of speaking of international trade using sports and martial metaphors, such as “level playing field” and “trade war.”

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Trade: Why everyone wins

Trade, though, is neither a sport nor a battle. It’s simply what happens when two or more consenting adults exchange with each other on terms that each party to the trade finds agreeable. Unlike in football games or shooting wars, in which the victors win only by making others lose, in trade every party to every exchange wins; every party gains.

And these gains only increase as trade expands across borders. It’s true, as Obama recalled, that there was “a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown. You didn’t always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors.” But don’t be blinded by nostalgia. That was also a time of far fewer miracle drugs, of more expensive clothing, of automobiles that broke down frequently, of televisions that cost an arm and a leg and received only four channels, and of no cellphones, personal computers, and the Internet.

The fact that trade is mutually beneficial means that Obama’s and others’ concern about America’s increasing trade with foreigners – especially today with China – is unjustified. Americans aren’t losing in these trades, and the foreigners aren’t defeating us.

Yes, America has a trade deficit. But contrary to popular myth, this fact does not mean that America is economically “uncompetitive.”

An American trade deficit means that foreigners are keen to invest in America. And that’s just what they’re doing, in a big way – bigger even than in China, a nation whose impressive economic growth is interpreted by many Americans as a threat to our economy.

Did you know that in the decade from 2000 through 2009, the total amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) received by China was $686 billion, while the total amount of FDI received by the U.S. was $1.8 trillion – by far the largest inflow of capital from foreigners received by any country on earth? America’s receipt of FDI dollars exceeded China’s by 162 percent. On a per-capita basis, the figure is even greater: The amount of FDI America received per person from 2000 through 2009 was ten times (!) greater than was received by China.

So when Obama said in his speech on Tuesday night that “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world,” he wrongly implied that America currently doesn’t do so well in the international economy. But it does – which is not to say that there isn’t a lot of room for improvement.

The president is correct that tax and regulatory reforms – along with reining in Uncle Sam’s deficit spending – are in order. Especially welcome is his call to lower corporate tax rates. And if calling such reforms “competitiveness policies” improves their chances of being implemented, I’m all for it.

But let’s not be fooled into thinking that America’s current economic troubles are caused by America’s open participation in global trade. Keeping straight about this fact will guard against our turning a blind eye to politicians who try to pass off policies that are pro-business as policies that are pro-growth.

Donald J. Boudreaux is professor of economics at George Mason University. He is the author of “Globalization.”


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