My Funny Valentine

Don and I have never experienced a Valentine's Day quite like this one. It's certainly the first time we've ever discussed our country's trade imbalance over dinner. I've never before brought findings by the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) to the table. We had barbequed Porterhouse steak, organic sweet broccoli sautéed in garlic and olive oil, and baked potatoes with organic chives. How about some BEA stats with that steak? Sure, what the heck. It's Valentine's Day. Nothing says romance like governmental findings.

I'd tried to understand the BEA report since its release a few days ago. I knew Don would be willing to help me sort it out. You can't exactly ask friends to participate in a discussion about economics and expect them to call again. So in between bites of steak, Don looked over the three-page report. I sipped my Merlot and nodded in support. The government had used such a tiny font, it took Don a while to locate the total trade deficit figures for 2010. When he did, he leaned back in his chair. "Wow, that's essentially a half-trillion." I asked him how many zeros that would be. He took another bite of steak, chewed, swallowed. "Eleven."

I like visuals, so here you go. Here's a half-trillion: $500,000,000,000

That's a half-trillion more of our American dollars going out to other countries for their goods and services than dollars coming into our country for our goods and services. Not exactly even-steven, is it? The most helpful part of the report, in my opinion, breaks trade down by a handful of countries in billions of dollars just for the month of December. We actually had trade surpluses (more going to them than coming to us) in three countries, not counting Hong Kong:

Singapore: +$1.3 billion

Australia: +$1.2 billion

Egypt: +$0.7 billion

Hong Kong: +$2.2 billion

"Wait," Don said. "Isn't Hong Kong considered part of China? The Chinese government sure considers it part of China. That's kind of confusing."

But I wasn't really listening to him. I instead looked at those three surplus countries--Singapore, Australia, and Egypt. These were countries, according to my Dad's nifty Import-Export Flow Chart, from whom I could actually in good conscience buy. I pictured a tiny window of opportunity opening. If we had trade surpluses with Singapore, Australia, and Egypt, why not go ahead and buy from them? Don looked at me funny. My funny Valentine. "Honey, we've come this far buying American products. Let's keep going." Sure, no problem. Six weeks down and 46 to go. We could do this. We still had Amish products to turn to should things get really desperate. Which reminded me, the dog needed a new bed. All dog beds are made in China. I made a mental note to order the Amish cat bed. The dog wouldn't know the difference.

Now, on to the trade deficits, by selected countries, again in billions of dollars just for the month of December. Keep in mind, this is how a billion looks: $1,000,000,000. Deep breath, here we go:

China: $20.7 billion

OPEC: $8.3 billion

European Union: $6.6 billion

Japan: $5.9 billion

Mexico: $4.7 billion

Canada: $3.9 billion

Germany: $3.3 billion

Ireland: $2.6 billion

Nigeria: $2.5 billion

Venezuela: $2.0 billion

Korea: $0.7 billion

Taiwan: $0.6 billion

Clearly, the biggest kid on the trade deficit block is China. No surprise there. But let's not get blasé about the other countries. I think we sometimes forget the scope of a billion dollars, or even a half-billion dollars. It's difficult to visualize. We become desensitized to it, especially when we are out buying inexpensive Made in China products. We toss the product--pack of batteries, pair of running shoes, a couple of toys for our babies or grandbabies--without visualizing a percentage of the dollars we spend winging its way to China or Anywhere But Here. We're just trying to stretch our dollars. If we could find those same products with Made in USA tags on them, we'd go for it. They simply aren't easily found.

All in all, it's been a rewarding, if different, Valentine's Day. The economic-summit-dinner. The USA-made gifts. The packages arriving one after the other via UPS. I couldn't run out at the last minute and buy Don a golf shirt. I researched online, spoke with reps at various companies, and decided to take the plunge into new territory. It's turned out well. My pale pink bathrobe is warm and beautiful and actually less expensive than the dozen long stemmed red roses Don has always had delivered to me. And Don really likes his "Union Made in USA" navy blue pullover golf jacket. He plans to wear his grey t-shirt to the gym in the morning. I told him he may get comments. "Good. We need to talk about this stuff. I'm ready." Gotta love that Valentine of mine. As my Dad said when he first met him, "That Don's a great guy. He's a keeper." Got that right, Dad. Happy Valentine's Day, wherever you are in the great somewhere out there.