There is a meme floating around the Internet (for example, here):
Do you know what our biggest export is today? Waste paper.
The United States has lost a total of about 5.5 million manufacturing jobs since October 2000.
The former assertion seems based on 2007 data reported here, which indicates (without giving a specific figure) that waste paper fills more shipping containers leaving the U S than any other product. A big volume, surely, but is it our largest export, either by dollar value or physical volume?
Take a look at the U S Statistical Abstract, 2010 edition, table 1272 (download the pdf for the international trade section here). Latest data shown is for 2008. Total value of “pulp and waste paper” exported: $7.744 billion. This is less than 1% of total exports ($1287.442 trillion). A few larger figures are Coal ($8.196 billion), Vehicles ($98.871 billion), “Television, VCR, etc” ($24.379 billion). There are eight different categories of chemicals, five of which each exceed $7.744 billion. And $115.248 billion of “agricultural commodities,” including Corn ($13.931 billion) and “Vegetables and fruits” ($14.040 billion).
I don’t have data on physical volume, but many of the products I mentioned above typically do not travel in shipping containers. In fact, one reason for export of waste paper might be that many containers would otherwise have to return empty to Asian ports.
As for the loss of manufacturing jobs, certainly there has been a decline, largely because manufacturing workers have become more productive. The Statistical Abstract only shows manufacturing data back to 2000, but during the period 2000-2008 the constant-dollar manufacturing GDP increased by over 10%, just slightly more than population growth.
I won’t deny that there are serious problems with the U S economy, and I won’t deny that the net outflow of dollars (largely due to petroleum consumption and “defense” expenditures) is unsustainable. It would be a good thing to remove obstacles which hinder American labor from producing in America, such as taxes on production and encouragement of nonproductive speculation. A more balanced flow of trade would likely be a byproduct. The more important result would be higher incomes and a better standard of living for working people.