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Tom Feran
By Tom Feran August 25, 2011

Sen. Rob Portman says U.S. export values per capita lag Ethiopia, China and South Korea

Ohio's Sen. Rob Portman is a former United States trade ambassador who supports more trade agreements to increase U.S. exports.

In a recent interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, the senator said the U.S. "should be the largest exporter in the world, which we are in many categories, but also per capita. We are well behind all of our trading partners."

Not only behind trading partners, he said: "We rank below Ethiopia, I'm told, in terms of our exports per capita, well below any of the other developed countries we trade with, and well below China and (South) Korea and countries we hope to trade with more, in the case of Korea through the Korean trade agreement."

When Portman made a similar statement early this year, saying that U.S. trade lags behind other developed nations, PolitiFact Ohio rated it as True. We found that the United States trails only Germany and China in terms of merchandise shipped abroad, but that U.S. exports are a smaller portion of the overall economy. The value of U.S. exports in relation to the nation's gross domestic product ranks near the bottom of a list of more than 200 exporting countries compiled by the World Bank.

Portman cited a different measure, exports per capita, on PBS. Knowing his expertise in international trade, PolitiFact Ohio again wanted to know more.

We looked at figures from the CIA World Factbook and were surprised at what we found. U.S. exports per capita (about $3,400 in 2009) were less than half of South Korea's ($7,700), just as Portman said.

But U.S. exports were substantially more per capita than China's ($899) and spectacularly more than Ethiopia's ($19).

We asked Portman's office for clarification, and were told the senator "was referring to the GDP number" on PBS.

Portman referred more than once to "exports per capita." But PolitiFact Ohio does understand slips of the tongue, and Portman clearly has expertise on this issue.

When we substituted "percentage of GDP" for "per capita" -- a substitution only suggested by our checking with his office -- his statement on PBS is accurate about China and South Korea, but not about Ethiopia. By a slim margin, exports from Ethiopia are a smaller percentage of GDP (11 percent) than are U.S. exports (13 percent) on the World Bank list.

So where does that leave us?

Portman's underlying point remains that U.S. exports lag behind other countries. Yet even allowing that he misspoke on the terms for his comparison, he still is off point on one of his examples.

His statement is partially accurate, but sorting it out requires knowing some important details. On the Truth-O-Meter, that makes it Half True.

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Sen. Rob Portman says U.S. export values per capita lag Ethiopia, China and South Korea

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