Paul Jacob

A tremor of hysteria can be detected in the headline: “Is the U.S. Losing Its Competitive Edge?” In the article, Peter Coy, Economics Editor for Business Week, elaborates how “Americans aren’t No. 1 anymore."

I’m stifling a yawn.

It’s not that I don’t want America to be prosperous. I do. I want Americans to become more prosperous.

I just don’t get all this talk about “competitiveness.”

The world’s nations are not engaged in a big track meet, with winners and losers. “Nations” as such aren’t the ones competing in global markets.

It’s businesses that compete.

For our money, our wealth.

And they aren’t competing to steal it. They are competing to co-operate with us in that most elegant of transactions, trade.

When I buy something from Target, I am co-operating with Target. I hand over some money, the cute girl at the counter hands over the t-shirt I chose. Like other forms of successful co-operation, we both gain. The people at Target may have out-competed the people at Wal-Mart for this particular item, but the goal of both companies is trade, not competition. Their competitiveness is their ability to show to me their own advantages, their better products, lower prices, more convenient shopping, whatever.

Each would prefer, I suppose, not to have to compete. Each would like not to offer me as good a deal as they do offer. Neither would work as hard to bring me my t-shirt if only one of them were in business.

So, hey: I like competition.

But I like it because it makes my co-operative experiences so much more satisfying!

Nations are in a different biz. A nation, ruled by a government, can set up the trading environment, yes. And governments do try to milk the trade for all they can get, in taxes. But how can they be competitive in this game?

Coy isn’t coy, he elaborates. It’s the World Economic Forum, “a nonprofit best known for its annual conclave of the bright and famous in Davos, Switzerland” that concocts this ranking “on official data and interviews with 11,000 executives around the world."

Last year’s ranking for the U.S. was originally reported as No. 2, but that was based on a discontinued method. By the new method, the U.S. was No. 1 in 2005 but No. 6 this year.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.