The most creative American exporters, and how their ideas could pull the economy out of the doldrums.

Trade and job creation
Oct. 28 2010 8:06 AM

Can Exports Save the American Economy?

The most creative American exporters, and how their ideas could pull the economy out of the doldrums.

Also in Slate: Martha C. White explores California's domination of the international almond market, Boeing's push to sell more aircraft overseas, how a small steel manufacturer thrives on the world stage, and what a tiny software firm can teach us about the future of American exports.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

The American consumer has proved to be remarkably resilient in the face of previous recessions, but we're not going to spend our way back to a boom this time. Earlier this year, an AP survey of 50 economists predicted financial instability into next year, while the Federal Reserve Board's most recent Beige Book study says the economic recovery is slowing down. This means the United States has to look beyond our shores for a solution to slowing GDP growth and stubbornly high unemployment.

In March, President Obama announced the creation of a National Export Initiative, the goal of which is to double American exports in five years. White House cheerleaders concede that it's an ambitious target, even though the administration started the clock last year, when exports were at a historic trough. They've since rebounded around 18 percent, which puts us ahead of goal for the time being. Doubling exports by 2014 calls for a roughly 15 percent increase year-over-year, but almost nobody thinks we'll be able to keep up that pace without some aggressive intervention. Obama convened the President's Export Council, a group of CEOs, members of Congress, and executive branch officials to help formulate successful policies. They held their first meeting last month to brainstorm ideas for keeping the momentum going.

The good news is that, alarmist headlines to the contrary, the United States actually exports a huge amount. Those who think of the U.S. solely as a consumer of Chinese-made barbecue grills and Bratz dolls may be surprised to learn that even in dismal 2009, we sent $1.6 trillion worth of stuff out of the country. Most of our exports aren't the kinds of things a shopper in Munich or Mumbai would pick up on their way home from work. Some of what we export is physical goods: We ship lots of heavy machinery, earth-moving equipment, chemicals, medical supplies, animal feed, and agricultural commodities. We also export enormous amounts of intellectual property—movies, music, and software—along with professional services.

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Boosting our exports should reduce our $375 billion annual trade deficit, let more money flow into the United States, and goose job growth. In fact, trade economists say export-based jobs tend to pay better and be more stable than others.

But how can the administration, and more importantly American businesses, turn wishful thoughts into sales? Over the next several weeks, Slate will profile a handful of the most creative American exporters. We'll look at big companies and small ones, companies that make things and companies that sell ideas. We'll be studying their best plans and most unlikely successes to find out how they've managed to grow their overseas business in spite of the global economic downturn, what challenges they've overcome, and what they think the administration must do to reach its goal.

We also want to hear from you. Is there a company you know that exports its wares in a particularly innovative way? Do you have a great idea for how we can boost our exports? Tell us about it in the comments section below, or e-mail us at SlateExports@Gmail.com; we'll be writing about the best of your submissions in a subsequent article.

Slate will also be hosting a fascinating conversation about exports with leading policymakers, legislators, and businesspeople on the morning of Nov. 15 in Washington, D.C. More details to come soon. We hope you'll be able to join us!

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Martha C. White is a freelance writer in New York.

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