What America Sells To The World : The Indicator from Planet Money U.S. exports include airplanes, education and lots of blood.

What America Sells To The World

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/582509923/582510492" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


I'm Cardiff Garcia, and this is THE INDICATOR, Planet Money's quick take on the news. Today's indicator - $2.2 trillion. That's how much stuff, goods and services, the U.S. sells to the rest of the world every year. That's a lot. But it's when you dig into the details that you really start to see some fascinating patterns. On this episode of THE INDICATOR, what America sells to the world.

CHARLES KENNY: 1.4 percent of what the U.S. exports of stuff is blood. We turn out to be...

GARCIA: Blood?

KENNY: ...A world leader in blood exports.


KENNY: My name is Charles Kenny. I'm a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C.

GARCIA: Charles has been researching and writing about globalization for a while. And frankly, he's just a fun dude to talk to about trade. You can even hear it in his voice how delighted he is to discuss U.S. exports.

KENNY: You know, we export machines. We export vehicles. We export chemicals. We export agricultural products. We export electronics. We export minerals. You know, just a huge range of stuff.

GARCIA: Charles is saying that our exports are tremendously varied. To get a sense of this, consider the top three categories of goods - so physical things, not services - that we export. Those are refined oil products, cars and airplanes. Put them all together and they still only add up to about 11 percent of the value of all goods we export. And you don't have to search far down the list to start finding some surprising stuff.

KENNY: 1.4 percent of what the U.S. exports of stuff is blood. We turn out to be...

GARCIA: Blood?

KENNY: ...A world leader in blood exports.

GARCIA: Like, human blood? My blood?

KENNY: Human blood.

GARCIA: Your blood?

KENNY: Absolutely, human blood products - so plasma, for example. One reason is - a couple of reasons. One is in Europe, during the mad cow outbreaks of a few years ago, people were worried that we couldn't screen that out of blood supplies. And so a lot of blood plasma was exported from U.S. to Europe. And that sort of continued. Another is frankly that in the United States, unlike most places, you can pay people for making donations of plasma and blood. And so there are a whole load of car accident victims in the United Kingdom and France who, you know, wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for the fact they've got U.S. blood circulating in their veins. So I think it's a good news story.

GARCIA: And all this variety, the blood and the stuff Kenny mentioned, that's good because it's healthy that the country isn't really dependent on any one thing it sells abroad. But he says our exports themselves are dependent on something. They're dependent on imports.

KENNY: If you look at the Boeing Dreamliner, for example, the wingtips are made in Korea. Large parts of the rest of the wing are made in Japan. The landing gear is made in France. Some of the engines are made in the United Kingdom. All that comes together in, you know, Boeing's factories in Seattle, and then we export it. But if you didn't have all of those imports, Boeing couldn't make the Dreamliner and it couldn't export it. And that would be, you know, really bad for U.S. trade.

GARCIA: Because if we were to make all of those parts in the U.S., the Dreamliner would be so expensive that it would be way harder to then export it abroad. There was one last thing Charles pointed out - some things that we export never leave the country. So a huge U.S. export category, about $200 billion a year, is travel. That's people from abroad who come as tourists or on business trips or students coming here to go to school. Think about it this way. For something to count as an export, someone who lives outside the U.S. just has to buy something from a business inside the U.S.

KENNY: So take somebody in Britain. They can buy their Mickey Mouse doll in the Disney store in London and that'll count as - some of that will count as an export from the United States. Or they can come to Disneyland and buy the Mickey Mouse doll. Then not only will they bought - buy the doll, but they'll, you know, be buying hotel and car rental and food and so on. And all of that counts as an export. And it's a really important part of the U.S. economy.

GARCIA: Another big export tied to people coming to the U.S. - education. American universities and schools make nearly $40 billion from foreign students every year.

KENNY: It's a big one. And it's a very important one, partially because most foreign students who come to the United States, you know, pay full price, right? They help support the university, providing more money for, you know, nicer sports equipment, smaller class sizes, better teachers - hopefully.

GARCIA: In other words, even though trade is about the movement of goods and services across borders, you can't separate it from the movement of people across borders.


GARCIA: And a last word about our sourcing - of the $2.2 trillion dollars in total U.S. exports each year, a little more than 1.4 trillion of that is in goods and nearly 800 billion is in services. We used the full year data for 2016 instead of last year because 2016 is the last calendar year for which the numbers were available at the time we spoke with Charles and we just had a lot more detail on them. Those numbers certainly did fluctuate in 2017, but not enough to change the basic themes we just presented. For more on the details of goods exports, we recommend "The Atlas Of Economic Complexity" from Harvard. And we also used the latest monthly release of the U.S. International Trade in Goods and Services report from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Finally, the figure for education exports was from Open Doors, a resource funded by the Department of State.


Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.