In my last column, I discussed the pros and cons of “decoupling” from China, which means offshoring far less of our manufacturing to them.
But is offshoring even viable, and at what cost?
Asia Times columnist David Goldman — long an advocate of decoupling for reasons of national security and competitive advantage in innovation — earlier this month wrote that while “the idea of an economic divorce is attractive to many,” it would undermine U.S. strategic interests.
Imports from China are in play in about one-quarter of U.S. manufacturing output, he wrote. “The U.S. doesn’t have the skills to replace a great deal of Chinese production.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook told Goldman a meeting of tooling engineers needed for the company’s products might fill a room in the U.S. “In China you could fill multiple football fields.”
The U.S., Goldman said, should not concentrate on replacing current Chinese talent. Instead, the U.S. should “concentrate on forcing breakthroughs in frontier technologies that China does not yet dominate.”
The U.S. needs a Manhattan Project-style team to focus on areas such as quantum computing, technological spinoffs of mobile broadband and chipmaking.
In 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. The United States took the challenge and massively increased basic research in science and engineering, and landed on the moon less than 12 years later.
We need the equivalent of those initiatives today.
This is not a new challenge. For over three decades, thought leaders such as Robert Reich, labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, have warned against our putting our best brains into manipulating symbols such as law and finance, rather than engineering and building things.
As much as anything, our challenge is about being serious about our society and economy, and far less frivolous and short-term profit-oriented.
Isaac Cheifetz, a Twin Cities executive recruiter and strategic résumé consultant, can be reached through catalytic1.com.