Our brains are our strength

During my recent trip to Hong Kong, Vietnam and Cambodia, I noticed that American goods and services were prominently available in each of those countries. This started me thinking that, with all of the poor economic news about our deficits, joblessness and trade imbalances, maybe we should focus more on those commercial areas where we still dominate the world and are at least fully competitive.

So, further being reminded of FDR’s comment that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” we should remember that we still have lasting economic strength in much of the world’s markets. Our outlook should reflect that reality. In other words, we still have cause for optimism.

Today, among other things, American companies are dominant in the overnight package delivery business with UPS and FedEx Corp.; the credit card business with VISA, MasterCard and American Express; the fast food industry with McDonald’s Corp., KFC and Burger King; the soft drink industry with Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.; consumer electronics and software with Microsoft Corp., Oracle Systems Corp., Apple Computer Inc., and Google; and the entertainment industry with movies, television, news, sports coverage and popular music.

We are also highly competitive in the stock brokerage business, the hotel industry, world engineering and construction, the oil industry, the airplane industry, farm tractors and bulldozers, aircraft engines, the dental and eye care industry, and, sadly, the cigarette industry.

Furthermore, United States companies are among the leaders in the world in pharmaceuticals; heart valves, pacemakers, and hip and knee replacements; breakfast cereals and other packaged foods; aerospace, rocket control systems and business jets with companies; elevators; and venture capital.

And Nike Inc. is simply a world leader in sports shoes and wearing apparel. We also mostly lead the world with technology and inventory control with large retailers like Costco Wholesale Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Best Buy Co.

And don’t be misled: today General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are producing some of the world’s best automobiles, vans, SUVs and small trucks. For example, the new Cadillac recently beat the BMW 5 Series in many important performance tests. And these are just some samples that I know of where American companies are highly competitive — surely there are many more.

So let’s not get carried away about how bad things look for us economically, even in these hard times. Yes, Japan, Korea and China are much more competitive now. But Japan’s economy is still struggling, and the quality of many of China’s products is increasingly seen as questionable.

Furthermore, although India has benefited from much outsourcing business, we are beginning to see some companies like United Healthcare bringing their work back here because India’s quality control is often not seen as high as we can consistently provide here in America.

We must also, of course, realize that we will probably never again compete with countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, India and China in low-cost labor. We can compete with our brains, but not our brawn. This means that those people in our country without an education who used to be able to have a reasonably good lifestyle, by working in factories and in other unskilled jobs, now run the risk of being left behind. Thus we all must help everyone to focus upon the importance of getting an education so that they can be marketable.

And then there are our universities. Although there are many good universities today in China, India and much of Europe, the United States still dominates the world in this critical area. Of course, we are not supporting our public universities nearly as much as we once were, and their quality cannot help but suffer eventually as a result. For example, California only provides about 15% of the funding for UCLA. But so far our universities are mostly holding their own.

So where does all of this leave us? We must once again focus upon the reality that businesses, whether they be small, medium or large, create the jobs that make and keep our economy strong. Thus the more we can do, within reason, to make our environment business friendly, the better off everyone will be.

For example, Intel Corp. recently left California and opened up a new plant in Oregon, and other companies are doing the same in Arizona and Nevada. Why? Because those states are seen as much more business friendly. That does not mean that we must abandon our environmental or anti-trust laws, or regulations promoting things like safety in the workplace. But it does mean that our governments and our laws must become more friendly for businesses, or they will either fold or move.

All of us can help. Elections are fast approaching for federal, state and local officeholders. So we should educate ourselves about the backgrounds and positions of the candidates. Read their materials, listen to their presentations, and ask questions — and follow-up questions — about where they stand.

If candidates favor more government regulations and controls, consider supporting and voting for someone else. California is one of the least business-friendly venues in the western United States, and we have the loss of jobs to prove it. Turning this around will largely determine whether we can continue to be optimistic about our financial future.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)