Saturday, July 23, 2016

How rooted are you in this footloose world?

Switching over from electrical engineering to graduate school in an alien field meant that every single day I was encountering ideas and arguments that I had never ever come across in my life in India.  I suppose to some, this is the worst approach because the more one keeps going after new ideas, the less one specializes.  Well, unless one is talented and able like this person, for instance, and I ain't! ;)

"Footloose" was one of those new ideas that made an impression on me.  No, not that footloose. All these years later, it turns out that neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders has had that concept explained to them!  If they looked it up on Wiki, they would have understood this about footloose industries: "an industry that can be placed and located at any location without effect from factors such as resources or transport."

Note the key idea there--located anywhere.

That "anywhere" was China, for most manufactured goods.  Honest academics have known about this footloose nature for a long time.  But, we academics are mere buzzkills and we have no idea how to energize people like how demagogues can.  One of these days I should assume the name of Major Buzzkill, which describes me really well ;)

So, we now have a strange spectacle of Trumpeters from the right and Berniacs from the left yelling and screaming about China.  Meanwhile, China is also beginning to understand footloose:
In today’s China, however, workers face a more troubled outlook than Mr. Trump suggests. They are losing their jobs because of a slowing domestic economy, rising costs and stiffer foreign competition — including from the United States.
Presidential candidates “are screaming about yesterday’s problems,” said Jim McGregor, chairman of the consulting firm APCO Worldwide’s Greater China operations. “Manufacturing for export is getting harder and harder” in China.
Yep, they “are screaming about yesterday’s problems.”  But, you think you can explain these things to Trump and his maniacal supporters?
 Labor costs in China are now significantly higher than in many other emerging economies. Factory workers in Vietnam earn less than half the salary of a Chinese worker, while those in Bangladesh get paid under a quarter as much.
Gooooooooood Morning, Vietnam!  Or, even India, like in this case:
Taiwan’s Foxconn, best known for making Apple iPhones in Chinese factories, is planning to build as many as 12 new assembly plants in India, creating around one million new jobs there. A pilot operation in the western Indian state of Maharashtra will start churning out mobile phones later this year.
Now, it does not mean that the industry will always move only to lower labor cost countries.  My favorite way to explain this to students is this: If it were truly about the cost of labor alone, then every manufacturer would be based in countries like Ethiopia or Tanzania.  But then students, too, do not listen to me.  I write op-eds about the footloose economy and, well, nobody cares.  Story of my life! ;)

Anyway, back to China:
Rising costs have also significantly altered China’s competitive position compared with the United States.
In a 2015 study, the Boston Consulting Group said the costs of manufacturing in China’s major export-producing zone were now almost the same as in the United States, after taking into account wages, worker productivity, energy costs and other factors.
Oh, but don't jump up and celebrate thinking that this will bring in a gazillion jobs to the US.  Most manufacturing is and will be highly automated--machines can be awesomely cheap workers, if the technology is there.

BTW, you can now see why economic geography is such a fascinating intellectual field.  The intersection of economics and geography when viewed through how it affects the human condition, and what the policy implications can be is not only brain fodder but with immense real world implications.  If only our "leaders" had taken an introductory course in economic geography!    

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