An Economist leader this week criticizes Germany's exportlust:
Yet Germany’s muscle-bound economy is also a victim of its exporters’ success. Global markets are volatile: the country’s current-account surplus has fallen by more than half from a mighty 8% of GDP in just a year. As the hard-earned surpluses piled up, they were invested in lower-quality foreign assets. Just ask the German banks that gave their money to those sharks on Wall Street, or the firms that splashed out on big acquisitions, like Chrysler. Germany seemed to forget that the point of exports is ultimately to pay for imports (see article).
That last bit contains a nice nugget of wisdom that seems obvious from an individual standpoint but is often lost when aggregated into national statistics. To a person, an export is something sold and an import is something bought; selling (exporting) is done to pay for stuff one is buying (importing). I for instance sell my labor to a small company, and the proceeds therefrom allow me to buy shelter, food, a new iPod, and so on; I produce in order to consume.
Yet when it comes to national economies, production often becomes the champion. What a country sells is deemed far more important than what it buys, and indeed, the more a country sells relative to what it buys (called a trade surplus) is a point of pride. On an individual basis however, this attitude could see one being vilified as a miser.