By Chris Peck, Memphis Commercial Appeal
September 20, 2009

Collierville to China, now that’s a hike.

But state Sen. Mark Norris is making that 7,700-mile trip in a couple of weeks. The Republican majority leader of the Tennessee Senate is leading a delegation of Southern state legislators to Beijing and Shanghai to explore ways to expand trade between the South and the emerging economic giant of Asia.

”And it is sort of uncanny how timely this is,” Norris said a few nights ago. Uncanny because in Memphis last week both FedEx founder and chairman Frederick W. Smith and former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice implored business leaders not to waver from their endorsement of free trade around the world.

”A simple statement of fact is that bringing the world’s economies together has done more for the good of humankind than anything else,” Smith told the crowd at the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Global Leadership Series dinner, where Smith received an award for his stupendous business success.

Certainly FedEx is the poster child for how it is supposed to work. From a modest start in 1973 with 14 planes buzzing around the South, the opening up of global trade the past 25 years has helped FedEx grow into an international behemoth with 300,000 employees that can deliver packages overnight to more than 200 countries.

So Norris feels his trip to China is well-timed.

”It’s all about economic development for the Southern states,” he said. ”I want to see how we can build our business relationships with China and help companies in West Tennessee who already are doing business there.”

Memphis has a bunch of those. Medtronic employs 900-plus in China. Buckman Laboratories has a chemical plant there. International Paper recently launched a joint project with a Chinese pulp and paper company.

But FedEx stands tall above all others in terms of connections to China.

”FedEx is now focused on building around three global hubs” in Paris, Memphis and at Hangzhou airport in China, explained Mike Demster, vice president for internal and technology business development for the Greater Memphis Chamber. “… The potential moving forward is huge.”

While he is in China, Norris plans to send regular dispatches on what he is learning about how West Tennessee companies can maintain and expand trade with that country. His reports will be posted at commercialappeal.com.

Most likely there will be some bumps along the way to expanding the road between Memphis and China. What Smith called “parochial interests” are now building momentum to pull back on years of free trade around the globe.

”The world is at a pivot point,” he said.

Rice made a similar point. The very future of democracy around the world depends, she asserted, on the ability of nations to support free trade and open economies, and lift the quality of life for people who want more than a subsistence livelihood. Then she added a crucial caveat: ”Democracy won’t last without economic progress.” ‘

There’s the rub. With 5 million Americans out of work and millions more having seen their wealth diminished by a drop in home prices and stock prices and expensive gasoline, the virtues of a global marketplace aren’t so obvious to us — or to depressed economies around the world.

Many worried Americans are looking for a scapegoat, amid growing suspicions that American jobs and American economic gains are leaving our shores and flowing overseas.

By some measures, that is true. The opening up of world markets has lifted economies in India, China and other developing nations because workers in these countries have agreed by the millions to do labor-intensive tasks for less money. As a result, many lower-skilled jobs, which historically have helped drive the Memphis economy, have gone elsewhere.

And as America’s public education system has struggled, other nations have found ways to develop more professional and science-minded students. These well-educated foreign scientists and technicians are now driving many of the creative endeavors of many companies — including FedEx in Memphis — while adding to the anxiety that American workers aren’t up to the task.

So globalization doesn’t feel as if it has been all that profitable here in America. The 90 percent of American workers who earn on average $31,000 a year have actually seen family income decline by about 4 percent since 2001.

At the other end of the scale, the top 1 percent of American households have seen their income rise by 7 percent. That feels pretty good. And those households fortunate enough to be in the top one-tenth of 1 percent — meaning they make $14 million a year or more — have seen a 22 percent increase since 2001. That sounds mighty fine.

These disparities also explain why protectionist sentiment is growing. Many Americans aren’t feeling their boat rise with the tide of global trade.

If you live in the investor class, globalization has felt like a warm sunrise. To most Americans living in the lottery class, it has felt more like a bad sunburn.

Finding ways to help resolve this tension will make Mark Norris’ travels all the more important.

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