The Chinese Get Richer, I Become Poorer. Right? Dreaded Percentages!

Elections season is on us again. On the talk shows, I hear more and more callers, and often hosts, grossly misusing percentages in the service of fallacious claims. Politicians won’t be far behind. Here we go again, I am thinking; I have been here before. Got to explain again.

This time, I am taking names. And there will be a quiz, and it will count toward the final grade.

Pay attention; slow down.

It’s 2000, I, JD, earn $60 as a machinist. My wife K earns $40 keeping accounts for others with the help of some sophisticate software. I am earning what percentage of our joint income?

60/60+40 = 60%

It’s 2010, I, JD, now earn $90 as a machinist, My wife K’s business has taken flight. She uses more sophisticated software. She has more customers than she can handle. She earns $120.

My share of our new joint income is now:

90/90+120 = 42%

The percentage of our joint income that I produce has declined. It has declined a lot; it has declined by almost 1/3.

Has the value of my production declined? Slow down!

The answer is clearly “no.” The value of my production has increased by half (from 60 to 90). That’s not bad at all. At any rate, it ‘s obviously an increase.

Think it through. Do the arithmetic yourself. There is no trick. It’s the simple math you did not learn in third grade because you hated the teacher.

In the simple example above, my income represents the value of American manufacturing. My wife’s income represents the value of the mysterious and illogical category “services.”

The percentage of the value of manufacturing relative to the total GDP of this country has been going down steadily because the value of US services has gone up even faster.

The absolute value of American manufacturing has only gone up and up, and going up. America has not become “de-industrialized,” contrary to a common but false perception.

The misperception has two main sources:

  1. Many media commentators and perhaps even more politicians don’t understand simple percentages. See above.
  2. The number of manufacturing jobs has declined even as the value of that which they manufacture has gone up.

Here is a solution to the drying up of manufacturing jobs: Take away machine tools from one metal worker in three; give him a hammer instead. You want even more manufacturing jobs, lots of them? Remove the software from textile weaving plants. Program their machines by hand as they did in 1910.

You don’t like the idea? Time for a serious discussion.

Now let’s go back up a little.

The quite good rise in the value of manufactures and the even greater rise in the value of whatever services produce, these two things are related. Better and better, more and more efficient manufacturing provides the resources for more services. We can afford more waiters, more surgeons, more teachers, more acupuncturists, more therapists, more life coaches, more “color advisers” (I live in Santa Cruz, California) because, collectively, we produce more hard necessities much more cheaply than our close ancestors did. Hard necessities include cars, soap, oatmeal, shovels, bricks and nails. Why, nails used to be forged by hand! I own some hand-forged nails from making repairs on my 1906 house.

When you hear, for example, that manufacturing now contributes only 30% of US GDP, it does not mean that there is less manufacturing being done in this country. To figure out the reality, you have to get out of percentages completely. Period!

If my income used to be $60 and it’s now $50 then, yes, it has declined. If it’s now $65, my income has risen. Period! That’s true irrespective of percentage contribution to anything.

Tech note: Don’t get tripped by the separate issue of the changing value of money. There are inflation/deflation calculators on the Internet that do a good enough job of dealing with this issue. I recommend that you consider one train of thought at a time.

Nearly everyone is overestimating himself. That’s the problem.

Speaking of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), a National Public Radio chickie announced breathlessly a couple of weeks ago that China would soon pass the US in GDP. I could hear fearful emotion in her voice, as if some bastard had threatened to cut up her credit card.

Here is the truth: We may soon see the day when 1,400 million Chinese produce as much together as…..314 million Americans.

Personally, I can’t wait for the Chinese to do better, to make their percentage of global joint production much higher.

Question: When the Chinese GDP reaches 60% of world joint GDP, will I be poorer?

Shipping Jobs Overseas: The Export of American Manufacturing Jobs and Lousy Education

I had a troubling encounter in the past few days. It was on Facebook and it was with a stranger. Here is how it went: I patronize several organizations’ and people’s Facebook pages, to stay informed and also to learn from them. There is a man, X, who is my Facebook “friend” and whose page I like because he is a libertarian, or a libertarian conservative like me, who knows useful things I don’t know. X has a talent for firing up debates on Facebook. In one debate a propos of I don’t remember what, one person, followed by several others, kept referring to the de-industrialization of America, its putative loss of manufacturing industries specifically.

I intervened calmly and politely to point out that there was no such thing. I remarked that the height of American industrial production was either 2008 or 2007, or maybe even 2006, not 1950 as they seemed to believe. I directed the debate participants to a couple of government sources. One woman responded almost insultingly, alleging that I was trying to send her on a wild goose chase. She appeared to think that I was referring her to the whole Census with its thousands of pages of documents. I took the trouble – obligingly, if I say so myself – to direct her through Facebook to a source I though was easy to read, NationMaster. In addition I summarized what NationMaster had to say on the topic.

Here is the summary: Continue reading

Leadership, International Trade, Hormuz and Ron Paul, Minorities and Ron Paul: The Last-Before-Last Republican Follies

Well, I am just about debated out. It’s difficult for all the candidates or pretend-candidates to maintain their dignity while answering complex questions in sixty seconds with thirty seconds for rebuttals. It’s worse when the debate is moderated, and many of the questions formulated, by one local unknown and two liberals, one of whom has been an air-head for as far back as I can remember. I am referring to Dianne Sawyer, of course, and I can remember at least thirty years.

Two general comments about the Saturday night New Hampshire debate. (I missed the Sunday morning debate, sorry.) First, as usual, much time was wasted with questions and answers about “leadership.” I don’t understand the questions. I don’t understand the answers; I suspect (strongly) that the candidates understand neither the questions nor the answers about leadership. Leadership is a word that is worse than useless. Trust me, I taught management for about 25 years. If the concept were useful, I would have noticed. It’s useless the way baby-talk is useless. To the average one-year old, everything is a “wah.” It takes all the resources of parental love to assign to or to invent a meaning for each “wah” utterance. I don’t have such love for anything politicians say. Any politician who made it a rule to eschew completely the use of the word “leader” and of its derivatives would instantly gain in clarity and in sincerity.

My second comment is that, as happens every time, the candidates demonstrated their deep ignorance of basic concepts of international trade and of international economics in general. It makes me feel good that I taught the topic for about thirty years. I feel retrospectively, that I must have been doing something useful. I expect such ignorance among liberals. It’s disheartening to encounter it on the conservative and libertarian side. Continue reading