There's an old saying about how statistics are like a swimsuit: what both reveal is interesting, but what they conceal is vital.
For example, in 2000, the U.S. plastics processing sector posted a trade surplus of $1.1 billion, according to U.S. government statistics. Which sounded pretty healthy. At the time, though, processors were beginning to report that they were losing significant chunks of business to competitors in China and elsewhere.
The data didn't support the complaints, so the processors had a tough time getting anyone to pay attention.
Fast forward to 2004: the latest Department of Commerce data shows that processors posted a $2.1 billion trade deficit in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available.
That means the trade situation made a $3.2 billion turnaround, from black ink into red, in just three years. So it turns out that those processors back in 2000 and 2001 were absolutely right.
Although the data from 2000 showed that China wasn't a big factor in U.S. plastics trade, the statistics today show how much has changed: China accounted for almost 40 percent of the slide for the U.S. processing industry, as China's trade surplus with the United States grew by $400 million.
We understand if there are a few of you out there who would like to shout from the rooftops: ``I told you so.'' Go ahead, if it makes you feel better.
The good news is that, four years later, the tough time that U.S. manufacturers are facing is finally a front-burner issue. All the major presidential candidates, including President Bush, are spending a lot of time talking about manufacturing jobs. It's too bad they didn't have the same debate four years ago, back when the problem first began to surface.
Now we have an opportunity to learn from that mistake.
One sector of the U.S. plastics industry that is still in pretty good shape, tradewise, according to the latest statistics, is resin production, which saw its trade surplus rise 3 percent in 2003, to $7.3 billion.
But if you've been paying attention to resin companies in recent months, that data doesn't make sense. Suppliers say the high cost of natural gas has made U.S. suppliers less competitive, because overseas suppliers have access to cheaper feedstocks.
Do we have to wait four years for Washington to pay attention to this issue? Probably not: chemical companies have a lot more clout on Capitol Hill than processors and toolmakers.
On top of that, if gasoline prices rise above $2 per gallon this summer, as some experts are predicting, you can be sure that the resulting pre-election-day economic catastrophe will elicit an usual response from Washington: quick action.