The United States has had the world’s largest trade deficit for almost half a century. In 2017, the US trade deficit in goods and services was $566 billion; without services, the merchandise account deficit was $810 billion.
The largest US trade deficit is with China, amounting to $375 billion, rising dramatically from an average of $34 billion in the 1990s. In 2017, its trade deficit with Japan was $69 billion, and with Germany, $65 billion. The US also has trade deficits with both its NAFTA partners, including $71 billion with Mexico.
Economist Professor Dr. Kwame Jomo Sundram
President Trump wants to reduce these deficits with protectionist measures. In March 2018, he imposed a 25% tariff on steel imports and a 10% tariff on aluminium, a month after imposing tariffs and quotas on imported solar panels and washing machines. On 10 July, the US listed Chinese imports worth $200 billion annually that will face 10% tariffs, probably from September, following 25% tariffs on $34 billion of such imports from 7 July.
Do US trade deficits reflect weakness?
The usual explanation for bilateral trade deficits is price differentials. However, the US accuses such countries of ‘unfair’ trade practices, such as currency manipulation, wage suppression and government subsidies to boost exports, besides blocking US imports.
Trump views most trade deals such as NAFTA as unfair. His team insists that renegotiating trade deals, ‘buying American’, a strong dollar and confronting China will shrink US trade deficits.
But the country’s overall trade deficit, offset by capital inflows, is related to the gap between its savings and investments. The US spends more than it produces, thus importing foreign goods and services. Cheap credit fuels debt-financed consumption, increasing the trade deficit.
Total US household debt rose to $13.2 trillion in the first quarter of 2018, the 15th consecutive quarter of growth in the mortgage, student, auto and credit card loan categories. American consumer debt was more than double GDP in 2017.
US government budget deficits have also been growing. From 67.7% of GDP in 2008, US government debt rose to 105.4% in 2017. The federal budget deficit was $665 billion in FY2017, rising 14% from $585 billion in FY2016.
The US budget deficit was 3.5% of GDP in 2017. According to the US Congressional Budget Office, it will surpass $1 trillion by 2020, two years sooner than previously projected, due to Trump tax cuts and spending increases.
Dr. Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor of Economics at Western Sydney University (Australia)
The growing US economy may also increase the trade deficit, as consumers spend more on imported goods and services. The stronger dollar has made foreign products cheaper for American consumers while making US exports more expensive for foreigners.
These underlying economic forces have become more important than policies in raising the overall trade deficit, while bilateral deficits reflect specific commercial relations with particular countries. Thus, disrupting bilateral trade relations may only shift the trade deficit to others.
Have the cake and eat it?
So, why does the US have a structural trade deficit? As the de facto international ‘reserve currency’ after the Second World War, the US has provided the rest of the world with liquidity. Its perceived military strength means it is also seen as a safe place to keep financial assets. Of about $10 trillion in global reserves in 2016, for example, around three fifths (60 per cent) were held in US dollars.
US supply of international liquidity by issuing the global reserve currency offers several economic advantages. It also earns seigniorage from issuing the main currency used around the world, due to the difference between the face value of a currency note and the cost of issuing it.
With growing foreign demand for dollars, the US can run deficits almost indefinitely by creating more debt or selling assets. Demand for dollar-denominated assets, for example, US Treasury bonds, raises their prices, lowering interest rates, to finance both consumption and investment.
While foreign investors buy low-yielding, short-term US assets, Americans can invest abroad in higher-yielding, long-term assets. The US usually reaps higher returns on such investments than it pays for debt, labelled America’s ‘exorbitant privilege’.
” As the US retreats from the global diplomatic stage, use of other reserve currencies, including China’s renminbi, has been growing, especially in Europe and Africa. Thus, ironically, as Trump wages trade wars on both foes and friends, China will probably gain, both geo-politically and economically.
The resulting global economic shift will not only hurt the US dollar and economy through the exchange rate and borrowing costs, but also its geopolitical dominance”.–Jomo and Anis
Thus, for the US to enjoy the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of the dollar’s role as the major reserve currency, it must run a chronic trade deficit. Therefore, giving up the dollar’s global reserve currency status will have major implications for the US economy, finances and living standards.
Can the US win Trump’s trade war?
Barry Eichengreen noted that countries in military alliances with reserve-currency issuing countries hold about 30% more of the partner’s currency in their foreign-exchange reserves than countries not in such alliances. Instead, Trump has prioritized reducing trade deficits to strengthen the US dollar and dominance while disrupting some old political alliances.
As the US retreats from the global diplomatic stage, use of other reserve currencies, including China’s renminbi, has been growing, especially in Europe and Africa. Thus, ironically, as Trump wages trade wars on both foes and friends, China will probably gain, both geo-politically and economically.
The resulting global economic shift will not only hurt the US dollar and economy through the exchange rate and borrowing costs, but also its geopolitical dominance.
Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University (Australia), held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development. In 2007, he was awarded received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. He was recently appointed a member of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Eminent Persons Council on Strategy and Policy.
In London, in the nineteen-thirties, the émigré Hungarian intellectual Karl Polanyi was known among his friends as “the apocalyptic chap.” His gloom was understandable. Nearly fifty, he’d had to leave his wife, daughter, and mother behind in Vienna shortly after Austria lurched toward fascism, in 1933. Although he had long edited and contributed to the prestigious Viennese weekly The Austrian Economist, which published such celebrated figures as Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter, he had come to discount his career as a thing of “theoretical and practical barrenness,” and blamed himself for failing to diagnose his era’s crucial political conflict. As so often for refugees, money was tight. Despite letters of reference from eminent historians, Polanyi failed to land a professorship or a fellowship, though he did manage to earn thirty-seven pounds co-editing an anti-fascist anthology, which featured essays by W. H. Auden and Reinhold Niebuhr. In his own contribution to the book, he argued that fascism strips democratic politics away from human society so that “only economic life remains,” a skeleton without flesh.
In 1937, he taught in adult-education programs in Kent and Sussex, commuting by bus or train and spending the night at a student’s house if it got too late to return home. The subject was British economic history, which he hadn’t much studied before. As he learned how capitalism had challenged the political system of Great Britain, the first nation in the world to industrialize, he decided that it was no accident that fascism was infecting countries as disparate as Japan, Croatia, and Portugal. Fascism shouldn’t be “ascribed to local causes, national mentalities, or historical backgrounds,” he came to believe. It shouldn’t even be thought of as a political movement. It was, rather, an “ever-given political possibility”—a reflex that could occur in any polity experiencing a certain kind of pain. In Polanyi’s opinion, whenever the profit-making impulse becomes deadlocked with the need to shield people from its harmful side effects, voters are tempted by the “fascist solution”: reconcile profit and security by forfeiting civic freedom. The insight became the keystone of his masterpiece, “The Great Transformation,” which was published in 1944, as the world was coming to terms with the destruction that fascism had wrought.
Today, as in the nineteen-thirties, strongmen are ascendant worldwide, purging civil servants, subverting the judiciary, and bullying the press. In a sweeping, angry new book, “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” (Norton), the journalist, editor, and Brandeis professor Robert Kuttner (pic above) champions Polanyi as a neglected prophet. Like Polanyi, he believes that free markets can be crueller than citizens will tolerate, inflicting a distress that he thinks is making us newly vulnerable to the fascist solution. In Kuttner’s description, however, today’s political impasse is different from that of the nineteen-thirties. It is being caused not by a stalemate between leftist governments and a reactionary business sector but by leftists in government who have reneged on their principles. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Kuttner contends, America’s Democrats, Britain’s Labour Party, and many of Europe’s social democrats have consistently tacked rightward, relinquishing concern for ordinary workers and embracing the power of markets; they have sided with corporations and investors so many times that, by now, workers no longer feel represented by them. When strongmen arrived promising jobs and a shared sense of purpose, working-class voters were ready for the message.
Born in 1886 in Vienna, Karl Polanyi grew up in Budapest, in an assimilated, highly cultured Jewish family. Polanyi’s father, an engineer who became a railroad contractor, was so conscientious that when his business failed, around 1900, he repaid the shareholders, plunging the family into genteel poverty. Polanyi’s mother founded a women’s college, hosted a salon, and had a somewhat chaotic personality that a daughter-in-law once likened to “a book not yet written.” At home, as Gareth Dale recounts in a thoughtful 2016 biography, the family spoke German, French, and a little Hungarian; Karl also learned English, Latin, and Greek as a child. “I was taught tolerance not only by Goethe,” he later recalled, “but also, with seemingly mutually exclusive accents, by Dostoyevsky and John Stuart Mill.”
After university, Polanyi helped to found Hungary’s Radical Citizens’ Party, which called for land redistribution, free trade, and extended suffrage. But he remained enough of a traditionalist to enlist as a cavalry officer shortly after the First World War broke out. At the front, where, he said, “the Russian winter and the blackish steppe made me feel sick at heart,” he read “Hamlet” obsessively, and wrote letters home asking his family to send volumes of Marx, Flaubert, and Locke. After the war, the Radical Citizens took power, but they fumbled it. In the short-lived Communist government that followed, Polanyi was offered a position in the culture ministry by his friend György Lukács, later a celebrated Marxist literary critic.
When the Communists fell, pogroms broke out, and Polanyi fled to Vienna. “He looked like one who looks back on life, not forward to it,” Ilona Duczynska, who became his wife, remembered. Duczynska was a Communist engineer, ten years younger than he was. She had smuggled tsarist diamonds out of Russia in a tube of toothpaste and once borrowed a pistol to assassinate Hungary’s Prime Minister, though he resigned before she could shoot him. She and Polanyi married in 1923 and soon had a daughter.
Karl Polanyi and Nobel Laureate in Economics Joseph E. Sitglitz
These were the days of so-called Red Vienna, when the city’s socialist government was providing apartments for the working class and opening new libraries and kindergartens. Polanyi held informal seminars on socialist economics at home. He started writing for The Austrian Economist in 1924, and he was promoted to editor-in-chief a few months before the right-wing takeover sent him into exile. Duczynska remained in Vienna, going underground with a militia, but, in 1936, she, too, emigrated, taking a job as a cook in a London boarding house. In 1940, Bennington College offered Polanyi a lectureship, and he left for Vermont, where his family soon joined him and he began to turn his lecture notes into a book. “Not since 1920 did I have a time so rich in study and development,” he wrote.
Polanyi starts “The Great Transformation” by giving capitalism its due. For all but eighteen months of the century prior to the First World War, he writes, a web of international trade and investment kept peace among Europe’s great powers. Money crossed borders easily, thanks to the gold standard, a promise by each nation’s central bank to sell gold at a fixed price in its own currency. This both harmonized trade between countries and stabilized relative currency values. If a nation started to sell more goods than it bought, gold streamed in, expanding the money supply, heating up the economy, and raising prices high enough to discourage foreign buyers—at which point, in a correction so smooth it almost seemed natural, exports sank back down to pre-boom levels. The trouble was that the system could be gratuitously cruel. If a country went into a recession or its currency weakened, the only remedy was to attract foreign money by forcing prices down, cutting government spending, or raising interest rates—which, in effect, meant throwing people out of work. “No private suffering, no restriction of sovereignty, was deemed too great a sacrifice for the recovery of monetary integrity,” Polanyi wrote.
The system was sustainable politically only as long as those whose lives it ruined didn’t have a say. But, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the right to vote spread. In the twenties and thirties, governments began trying to protect citizens’ jobs from shifts in international prices by raising tariffs, so that, in the system’s final years, it hardened national borders instead of opening them, and engendered what Polanyi called a “new crustacean type of nation,” which turned away from international trade, making first one world war, and then another, inevitable.
In Vienna, Polanyi had heard socialism dismissed as utopian, on the ground that no central authority could efficiently manage millions of different wishes, resources, and capabilities. In “The Great Transformation,” he swivelled this popgun around. What was utopian, he declared, was “the concept of a self-regulating market.” Human life wasn’t as orderly as mathematics, and only a goggle-eyed idealist would think it wise to lash people to a mechanism like the gold standard and then turn the crank. For most of human history, he observed, money and the exchange of goods had been embedded within culture, religion, and politics. The experiment of subordinating a nation to a self-adjusting market hadn’t even been attempted until Britain tried it, in the mid-eighteen-thirties, and that effort had required a great deal of coördination and behind-the-scenes management. “Laissez-faire,” Polanyi earnestly joked, “was planned.”
On the other hand, Polanyi believed that resistance to market forces, which he dubbed “the countermovement,” truly was spontaneous and ad hoc. He pointed to the motley of late-nineteenth-century measures—inspecting food and drink, subsidizing irrigation, regulating coal-mine ventilation, requiring vaccinations, protecting juvenile chimney sweeps, and so on—that were instituted to housebreak capitalism. Because such restraints went against the laws of supply and demand, they were despised by defenders of laissez-faire, who, Polanyi noticed, usually argued “that the incomplete application of its principles was the reason for every and any difficulty laid to its charge.” But what was the alternative? Once the laissez-faire machine started running, it cheerfully annihilated the people and the natural environment that it made use of, unless it was restrained.
Polanyi offered the example of the enclosure movement in sixteenth-century England, when landowners tore down villages and turned common lands into private pastures. The changes brought efficiencies that raised the land’s food yield as well as its value, in the long term improving life for everyone. Enclosure was a good thing, in other words; the numbers said so. In the short term, however, it dispossessed peasants who couldn’t immediately improvise a new living, and it was only because of a countermovement—led in piecemeal fashion by the monarchy, in a long, losing battle with Parliament—that more people didn’t die of exposure and starvation. If you argued that resistance did not compute, you would be right, but the countermovement, though it couldn’t stop progress, shielded people by slowing it down. It made enclosure so gradual that, even three centuries later, the poet John Clare was lamenting its advance in his sonnets.
In the nineteen-thirties, when Polanyi was first formulating his critique, the British economist John Maynard Keynes was likewise arguing that capitalist economies aren’t self-adjusting. The markets for labor, goods, and money, he showed, don’t find equilibriums independently but through interactions with one another that can have unfortunate, counterintuitive side effects. In hard times, economies tend to retrench, just when stimulus is most needed; the richer they get, the less likely they are to invest enough to sustain their wealth. During the Depression, Keynes made the case that governments should deficit-spend their way out of recessions. By the time Polanyi’s book was published, the Keynesian view had become orthodoxy. For the next few decades, the world’s leading economies were tightly managed by their governments. America’s top marginal tax rate stayed at ninety-one per cent until 1964, and anti-usury laws kept a ceiling on interest rates until the late seventies. The memory of the financial chaos of the thirties, and of the fascism that it gave rise to, was still vivid, and the Soviet Union loomed as an alternative, should the Western democracies fail to treat their workers well.
In terms of international monetary systems, too, Keynesianism held sway. In 1944, at the Bretton Woods Conference, Keynes helped to negotiate a way of harmonizing exchange rates that gave national governments enough elbow room to boost their domestic economies when necessary. Only America continued to redeem its currency with gold. Other nations pegged their currencies to the dollar (making it their reserve currency), but they were free to adjust their currencies’ values within limits when the need arose. Countries were allowed, and sometimes even required, to impose capital controls, measures that limited the cross-border flow of investment capital. With investors unable to yank money suddenly from one country to another, governments were free to spur growth with low interest rates and to spend on social programs without fear that inflation-averse capitalists would sell off their nations’ bonds. So weak was the political power of investors that France, Britain, and America let inflation shrink the value of their war debts considerably. In France, the economist Thomas Piketty has quipped, the period amounted to “capitalism without capitalists.”
The result—highly inconvenient for free-market fundamentalists—was prosperity. In the three decades following the Second World War, per-capita output grew faster in Western Europe and North America than ever before or since. There were no significant banking or financial crises. The real income of Europeans rose as much as it had in the previous hundred and fifty years, and American unemployment, which had ranged between fourteen and twenty-five per cent in the thirties, dropped to an average of 4.6 per cent in the fifties. The new wealth was widely shared, too; income inequality plummeted across the developed world. And with the plenty came calm. The economic historian Barry Eichengreen, in his new book, “The Populist Temptation” (Oxford), reports that in twenty advanced nations no populist leader—which he defines as a politician who is “anti-elite, authoritarian, and nativist”—took office during this golden era, and that a far narrower share of votes went to extremist parties than before or after.
“This was the road once taken,” Kuttner writes. “There was no economic need for a different one.” Nevertheless, we strayed—or, rather, in Kuttner’s telling, we were driven off the road after capitalists grabbed the steering wheel away from the Keynesians. The year 1973, in his opinion, marked “the end of the postwar social contract.” Politicians began snipping away restraints on investors and financiers, and the economy returned to spasming and sputtering. Between 1973 and 1992, per-capita income growth in the developed world fell to half of what it had been between 1950 and 1973. Income inequality rebounded. By 2010, the real median earnings of prime-age American workingmen were four per cent lower than they had been in 1970. American women’s earnings rose for a bit longer, as more women made their way into the workforce, but declined after 2000. And, as Polanyi would have predicted, faith in democracy slipped. Kuttner warns that support for right-wing extremists in Western Europe is even higher today than it was in the nineteen-thirties.
But was Keynesianism pushed, or did it stumble? Kuttner’s indignation about its fall from grace is more straightforward than the course of events that led to it. In the years following the Second World War, Europe was swimming with dollars, thanks to the Marshall Plan and American military aid to Europe. Beyond America’s jurisdiction, those dollars slipped free of its capital controls, and in the nineteen-sixties investors began to sling them from country to country as impetuously as in the days before Bretton Woods, punitively dumping the bonds of any government that tried to run an interest rate lower than those of its peers. The cost of the Vietnam War sparked inflation in America, and the dollar’s second life as the world’s reserve currency risked pushing the inflation even higher. When America fell into recession in 1970, the Federal Reserve tried to boost the country out of it by dropping interest rates, and America became a target of opportunity for speculators: capital fled the country, taking gold with it. By May, 1971, the United States was facing its first merchandise trade deficit since 1893, an indication that the high dollar was discouraging foreign buyers. Unwilling to pacify investors by inflicting austerity on voters, President Richard Nixon uncoupled the dollar from gold, ending the Bretton Woods agreement. Then, in October, 1973, Arab nations, upset about America’s solidarity with Israel during the Yom Kippur War, embargoed oil sales to the United States, and the price of crude nearly quadrupled in the space of three months. Food prices skyrocketed, and, as wallets were pinched, the country tumbled into another recession.
At this juncture, a new economic monster appeared: stagflation, a chimera of inflation, recession, and unemployment. Keynesian economists, who didn’t think that high unemployment and inflation could coëxist, were at a loss for how to handle it. The predicament provided an opening for their critics, most notably Milton Friedman, who argued that incessant government stimulation of the economy risked promoting not only inflation but the expectation of inflation, which could then spiral out of control. Friedman declared Keynesianism discredited and demanded that the government refrain from tampering with the economy, other than to manage the money supply.
In 1974, Alan Greenspan, President Gerald Ford’s economic adviser and an acolyte of Ayn Rand, likewise urged resisting political pressure to help the economy grow. “Inflation is our domestic public enemy No. 1,” Ford declared, and the Federal Reserve raised interest rates. Five years later, when a revolution in Iran set off a second spike in oil prices, a new round of inflation, and yet another recession, President Jimmy Carter’s Federal Reserve chair, Paul Volcker, raised interest rates again and again, to as high as twenty per cent. By 1982, America’s G.D.P. was shrinking 2.2 per cent a year, and unemployment was higher than it had been since the Great Depression. The nation had gone back to stabilizing its currency the old-fashioned way—by throwing people out of work—and utopian faith in self-regulating free markets had made a comeback. Kuttner thinks that this was a terrible mistake, arguing that the inflation of the seventies was limited to particular sectors of the economy such as food and oil. That sounds a little like special pleading. It’s not clear how Ford and Carter could have resisted the pressure they were under to find a new policy solution once it was clear that the old one wasn’t working.
In time, Keynesians adapted their models—one adjustment took into account Friedman’s discovery of the dangers posed by the expectation of inflation—and the resulting synthesis, New Keynesianism, is now canonical. Both the Bush and the Obama Administrations adopted Keynesian policies in response to the financial crisis of 2008. But when stagflation flummoxed the Keynesians it cost them their near-monopoly on political advice-giving, and laissez-faire was rereleased into the political sphere. In January, 1974, the United States removed constraints on sending capital abroad. A 1978 Supreme Court decision overturned most state laws against usury. By the early twenty-first century, Kuttner charges, every New Deal regulation on finance was either “repealed or weakened by non-enforcement.” Starting in the eighties, developing nations found free-market doctrine written into their loan agreements: bankers refused to extend credit unless the nations promised to lift capital controls, balance their budgets, limit taxes and social spending, and aim to sell more goods abroad—an uncanny replica of the austerity terms enforced under the gold standard. The set of policies became known as the Washington Consensus. The idea was pain in the short term for the sake of progress in the long term, but a 2011 meta-analysis was unable to find statistically significant evidence that the trade-off is worth it. Even if it is worth it, Polanyi would have recommended tempering the short-term pain. From 2010, when austerity measures were first imposed on Greece, to 2016, its G.D.P. declined 35.6 per cent, according to the World Bank. A federally appointed panel is now pushing for a similar approach in Puerto Rico.
There is no shortage of villains in Kuttner’s narrative: financial deregulation; supply-side tax cuts; the decline of trade unions; the Democratic Party, which, by zigging left on identity politics and zagging right on economics, left conservative white working-class voters amenable to Donald Trump. Perhaps the most vexed issue Kuttner discusses, however, is trade policy—whether American workers should be protected against cheap foreign goods and labor.
The contours of the problem call to mind Polanyi’s account of enclosures in early-modern England. Half an hour with a supply-and-demand graph shows that free trade is better for every nation, developed or developing, no matter how much an individual businessperson might wish for a special tariff to protect her line of work. In a 2012 survey, eighty-five per cent of economists agreed that, in the long run, the boons of free trade “are much larger than any effects on employment.” But although free trade benefits a country over all, it almost always benefits some citizens more than—and even at the expense of—others. The proportion of low-skilled labor in America is smaller than in most countries that trade with America; economic theory therefore predicts that international trade will, on aggregate, make low-skilled workers in the United States worse off. The U.S. government has, since 1962, compensated workers laid off because of free trade, but the benefit has never been adequate; only four people were certified to receive it during its first decade. In a 2016 paper, “The China Shock,” the economists David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson wrote that, for every additional hundred dollars of Chinese goods imported to an area, a manufacturing worker is likely to lose fifty-five dollars of income, while gaining only six dollars in government help.
In a laissez-faire utopia, dislodged workers would relocate or take jobs in other industries, but workers hurt by rivalry with China are doing neither. Maybe they don’t have the resources to move; maybe the flood of Chinese-made goods is so extensive that there are no unaffected manufacturing sectors for them to switch into. The authors of “The China Shock” calculate that, between 1999 and 2011, trade with China destroyed between two million and 2.4 million American jobs; Kuttner quotes even higher estimates. NAFTA, meanwhile, lowered the wage growth of American high-school dropouts in affected industries by sixteen percentage points. In “Why Liberalism Failed” (Yale), the political scientist Patrick J. Deneen denounces the assumption that “increased purchasing power of cheap goods will compensate for the absence of economic security.”
Kuttner follows Polanyi in attacking free-market claims of mathematic purity. “Literally no nation has industrialized by relying on free markets,” he writes. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton recommended that America encourage new branches of manufacturing by taxing imports and subsidizing domestic production. Even Britain, the world’s first great champion of free trade, started off protectionist. Kuttner believes that America stopped supporting its manufacturing sector partly because it got into the habit, during the Cold War, of rewarding foreign allies with access to American consumers, and eventually decided that exports of financial services, rather than of manufactured goods, would be the country’s future. Toward the end of the century, as American manufacturers saw the writing on the wall, they shifted production abroad.
Kuttner doesn’t give a full hearing to the usual reply by defenders of laissez-faire, which is that a transition from goods to services is inevitable in a maturing economy—that the efficiency of American manufacturing means that it would likely be shedding workers no matter what the government did. Even Eichengreen, a critic of globalization, notes, in “The Populist Temptation,” that, if you graph the share of the German workforce employed in manufacturing from 1970 to 2012, you see a steady, grim decline very similar to that of its American counterpart, despite the fact that Germany has long spent heavily on apprenticeship and vocational training. The industrial revolution created widely shared wealth almost magically at its dawn: when an unemployed farmworker took a job in a factory, his power to make things multiplied, along with his earning power, without his having to learn much. But, as factories grew more efficient, fewer workers were needed to run them. One study has attributed eighty-seven per cent of lost manufacturing jobs to improved productivity.
When a worker leaves a factory, her power to create wealth stops being multiplied. The only way to increase it again is through education—by teaching her to become a sommelier, say, or an anesthesiologist. But efficiency gains are notoriously harder to come by in service industries than in manufacturing ones. There are only so many leashes a dog walker can hold at one time. As a result, if an economy deindustrializes without securing a stable manufacturing core, its productivity may erode. The dynamic has caused stagnation in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and there are signs of a comparable weakening of America’s earning power.
Meanwhile, in the factories that remain, machines have grown more complex; the few workers they employ need to be better educated, further widening the gap between educated and uneducated workers. Kuttner dismisses this labor-skills explanation for job loss as an “alibi” with “an insulting subtext”: “If your economic life has gone to hell, it’s your fault.” This is intemperate but, in Kuttner’s defense, he has been warning American politicians to protect manufacturing jobs since 1991, and has been enlisting Polanyi in the cause for at least as long. Moreover, he has a point: to talk about productivity-induced job loss when challenged to explain trade-induced job loss is to change the subject. Economists estimate that advances in automation explain only thirty to forty per cent of the premium that a college degree now adds to wages. And though Eichengreen is right about manufacturing’s declining share of the German workforce, it still stood at twenty per cent in 2012, which is roughly where the American share stood three decades earlier, and the German decline has been less steep. Somehow, Germany’s concern for its manufacturing workforce made a difference.
In any case, if one’s concern is populism, it may not matter whether jobs have been lost to trade competition or to automation. In areas where more industrial robots have been introduced, one analysis shows, voters were more likely to choose Trump in 2016. According to another analysis, if competition with Chinese imports had been somehow halved, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would likely have chosen Hillary Clinton that year. Economic explanations like these have been challenged. In April, the political scientist Diana C. Mutz published a paper finding that Trump voters were no more likely than Clinton ones to have suffered a personal financial setback; she concluded that Trump’s victory was more likely caused by white anxiety about loss of status and social dominance. But it’s not surprising that Trump voters weren’t basing their decisions on their personal circumstances, because voters almost never do. And Mutz’s own results showed that the factors most likely to lead to a Trump vote included pessimism about the economy and preferring Trump’s position on China to Clinton’s. It may not be possible to untangle economic anxiety and a more tribal mind-set.
Casting about for a Polanyi-style countermovement to temper the ruthlessness of laissez-faire, Kuttner doesn’t rule out tariffs. They’re economically inefficient, but so are unions, and, for a follower of Polanyi, efficiency isn’t the only consideration. A decision about a nation’s economic life, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik writes, in “Straight Talk on Trade” (Princeton), “may entail trading off competing social objectives—such as stability versus innovation—or making distributional choices”; that is, deciding who gains at whose expense. Such a decision should therefore be made by elected politicians rather than by economists. America imposed export quotas on Japan in the seventies and eighties, to the alarm of headline writers at the time: “Protectionist Threat,” the Times warned. But Rodrik, looking back, judges the measures to have been reasonable ad-hoc defenses—“necessary responses to the distributional and adjustment challenges posed by the emergence of new trade relationships.”
Trump’s chief trade negotiator served on the Reagan team that administered quotas against Japan. A similar approach today, however, seems unlikely to work on China, whose economy is much more messily enmeshed with America’s. You probably can’t name as many Chinese brands as Japanese ones, even though you probably buy more Chinese-made products, because they are sold to Americans by American companies. American workers may wish they had been shielded from the effects of trade with China, but American businesses, by and large, don’t. Perhaps that’s why Trump has escalated from a tariff on steel and aluminum to erratic threats of a trade war. To achieve his campaign goal of bringing manufacturing jobs home from China, he will have to not only impose tariffs but also convince multinationals that the tariffs will stay in place beyond the end of his Administration. Only then will executives calculate that they can’t just wait it out—that they have no choice but to incur the enormous costs and capital losses of abandoning investments in China and making new ones here. It’s hard to imagine such a scheme working, unless Trump establishes a political command over the private sector not seen in America since the forties. That can’t be ruled out, given the state of affairs in Russia, China, Hungary, and Turkey, but it seems more likely that Trump’s bluster will merely motivate businesses to be deferential to him, in pursuit of favorable treatment.
“Basically there are two solutions,” Polanyi wrote in 1935. “The extension of the democratic principle from politics to economics, or the abolition of the democratic ‘political sphere’ altogether.” In other words, socialism or fascism. The choice may not be so stark, however. During America’s golden age of full employment, the economy came, in structural terms, as close as it ever has to socialism, but it remained capitalist at its core, despite the government’s restraining hand. The result was that workers shared directly in the country’s growing wealth, whereas today proposals for fostering greater financial equality hinge on taxing winners in order to fund programs that compensate losers. Such redistributive measures, Kuttner observes, are only “second bests.” They don’t do much for social cohesion: winners resent the loss of earnings; losers, the loss of dignity.
Can we return to an equality in workers’ primary incomes rather than to one brought about by secondary redistribution? In a recent essay for the journal Democracy, the Roosevelt Institute fellow Jennifer Harris recommends reimagining international trade as an engine for this rather than as an obstacle to it. When negotiating trade deals, for instance, governments could make going to bat for multinationals conditional on their agreeing to, say, pay their workers a higher fraction of what they pay executives.
Failing that, we’d be better off with redistributive programs that are universal—parental leave, national health care—rather than targeted. Benefits available to everyone help people without making them feel like charity cases. Kuttner reports great things from Scandinavia, where governments support workers directly—through wage subsidies, retraining sabbaticals, and temporary public jobs—rather than by constraining employers’ power to fire people. “We won’t protect jobs,” Sweden’s labor minister recently told the Times. “But we will protect workers.” Income inequality in Scandinavia is lower than here, and a larger proportion of citizens work. Maybe a government can insure higher pay for its workers by treating them as if they were, in and of themselves, valuable. True, Denmark’s spending on its labor policies has at times risen to as high as 4.5 per cent of its G.D.P., more than the share America spends on defense, and studies show that diverse countries such as ours find it harder to muster social altruism than more racially and culturally homogenous ones do. Nonetheless, programs like Social Security and Medicare, instituted when a communitarian ethic was still strong in American politics, remain popular. Why not try for more? It might make sense even if the numbers don’t add up. ♦
COMMENT: This is going to be the shortest comment I intend to make. Stop wasting public funds by going into another car project. We have invested and lost millions of money on Proton. But you are free, Dr. Mahathir to put your own money in your proposed joint Indonesia-Malaysia car for the ASEAN market.–Din Merican
Mahathir indicates possibility of a Malaysia-Indonesia car
Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad Friday spoke of the possibility of reviving the proposed project of a Malaysia-Indonesia car for the Asean market.
He said the idea was brought up when he test drove a Proton car in Malaysia in February 2015 with visiting Indonesian President Joko Widodo sitting beside him.
“I was no longer the prime minister then,” he said.
Mahathir was the prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and became the premier for the second time on May 10, 2018.
“I drove the car at a speed of 180 km per hour on the Sepang race circuit. The President (Joko Widodo) did not complain at all (when the car was driven at that speed),” Mahathir said at the joint press conference with Jokowi, as the Indonesian President is fondly called, in conjunction with his official visit to Indonesia.
Jokowi had recalled the test drive when he spoke earlier at the press conference and said he had no cause for worry because the person behind the wheel was Mahathir.
“I was not afraid because the driver was Mahathir,” he said.
The recent correction in the US stock market is now being characterized as a fleeting aberration – a volatility shock – in what is still deemed to be a very accommodating investment climate. In fact, for a US economy that has a razor-thin cushion of saving, dependence on rising asset prices has never been more obvious.
NEW HAVEN – The spin is all too predictable. With the US stock market clawing its way back from the sharp correction of early February, the mindless mantra of the great bull market has returned. The recent correction is now being characterized as a fleeting aberration – a volatility shock – in what is still deemed to be a very accommodating investment climate. After all, the argument goes, economic fundamentals – not just in the United States, but worldwide – haven’t been this good in a long, long time.But are the fundamentals really that sound? For a US economy that has a razor-thin cushion of saving, nothing could be further from the truth. America’s net national saving rate – the sum of saving by businesses, households, and the government sector – stood at just 2.1% of national income in the third quarter of 2017. That is only one-third the 6.3% average that prevailed in the final three decades of the twentieth century.
It is important to think about saving in “net” terms, which excludes the depreciation of obsolete or worn-out capacity in order to assess how much the economy is putting aside to fund the expansion of productive capacity. Net saving represents today’s investment in the future, and the bottom line for America is that it is saving next to nothing.
Alas, the story doesn’t end there. To finance consumption and growth, the US borrows surplus saving from abroad to compensate for the domestic shortfall. All that borrowing implies a large balance-of-payments deficit with the rest of the world, which spawns an equally large trade deficit. While President Donald Trump’s administration is hardly responsible for this sad state of affairs, its policies are about to make a tough situation far worse.
Under the guise of tax reform, late last year Trump signed legislation that will increase the federal budget deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade. And now the US Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has upped the ante by another $300 billion in the latest deal to avert a government shutdown. Never mind that deficit spending makes no sense when the economy is nearing full employment: this sharp widening of the federal deficit is enough, by itself, to push the already-low net national saving rate toward zero. And it’s not just the government’s red ink that is so troublesome. The personal saving rate fell to 2.4% of disposable (after-tax) income in December 2017, the lowest in 12 years and only about a quarter of the 9.3% average that prevailed over the final three decades of the twentieth century.
As domestic saving plunges, the US has two options – a reduction in investment and the economic growth it supports, or increased borrowing of surplus saving from abroad. Over the past 35 years, America has consistently opted for the latter, running balance-of-payments deficits every year since 1982 (with a minor exception in 1991, reflecting foreign contributions for US military expenses in the Gulf War). With these deficits, of course, come equally chronic trade deficits with a broad cross-section of America’s foreign partners. Astonishingly, in 2017, the US ran trade deficits with 102 countries.
The multilateral foreign-trade deficits of a saving-short US economy set the stage for perhaps the most egregious policy blunder being committed by the Trump administration: a shift toward protectionism. Further compression of an already-weak domestic saving position spells growing current-account and trade deficits – a fundamental axiom of macroeconomics that the US never seems to appreciate.
Attempting to solve a multilateral imbalance with bilateral tariffs directed mainly at China, such as those just imposed on solar panels and washing machines in January, doesn’t add up. And, given the growing likelihood of additional trade barriers – as suggested by the US Commerce Department’s recent recommendations of high tariffs on aluminum and steel – the combination of protectionism and ever-widening trade imbalances becomes all the more problematic for a US economy set to become even more dependent on foreign capital. Far from sound, the fundamentals of a saving-short US economy look shakier than ever.
Lacking a cushion of solid support from income generation, the lack of saving also leaves the US far more beholden to fickle asset markets than might otherwise be the case. That’s especially true of American consumers who have relied on appreciation of equity holdings and home values to support over-extended lifestyles. It is also the case for the US Federal Reserve, which has turned to unconventional monetary policies to support the real economy via so-called wealth effects. And, of course, foreign investors are acutely sensitive to relative returns on assets – the US versus other markets – as well as the translation of those returns into their home currencies.
Driven by the momentum of trends in employment, industrial production, consumer sentiment, and corporate earnings, the case for sound fundamentals plays like a broken record during periods of financial market volatility. But momentum and fundamentals are two very different things. Momentum can be fleeting, especially for a saving-short US economy that is consuming the seed corn of future prosperity. With dysfunctional policies pointing to a further compression of saving in the years ahead, the myth of sound US fundamentals has never rung more hollow.
*Stephen S. Roach, former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and the firm’s chief economist, is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and a senior lecturer at Yale’s School of Management. He is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.
“Will Trump respond like FDR in 1933, reassuring the public that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself? Or will he look for someone to blame for the collapse in his favorite economic indicator and lash out at the Democrats, foreign governments, and the Fed? A president who plays the blame game would only further aggravate the problem.”-Barry Eichengreen
When interpreting sharp drops in stock prices and their impact, many will think back to 2008 and the market turbulence surrounding Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing. But a better historical precedent for current conditions is the huge one-day drop on October 19, 1987.
BERKELEY – US President Donald Trump has regularly pointed to the stock market as a source of validation of his administration’s economic program. But, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) has risen by roughly 30% since Trump’s inauguration, the extent to which the market’s rise was due to the president’s policies is uncertain. What is certain, as we have recently been reminded, is that what goes up can come down.
When interpreting sharp drops in stock prices and their impact, many will think back to 2008 and the market turbulence surrounding Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing. But a better historical precedent for current conditions is Black Monday: October 19, 1987.
Black Monday was a big deal: the 22.6% price collapse is still the largest one-day percentage drop in the DJIA on record. The equivalent today would be – wait for it – 6,000 points on the Dow.
In addition, the 1987 crash occurred against the backdrop of monetary-policy tightening by the US Federal Reserve. Between January and October 1987, the Fed pushed up the effective federal funds rate by nearly 100 basis points, making it more expensive to borrow and purchase shares. In the run-up to October 2008, by contrast, interest rates fell sharply, reflecting a deteriorating economy. That is hardly the case now, of course, which makes 1987 the better analogy.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin
The 1987 crash also occurred in a period of dollar weakness. Late in the preceding week, Treasury Secretary James Baker made some remarks that were interpreted as a threat to devalue the dollar. Like current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at Davos this year, Baker could complain that his comments were taken out of context. But it is revealing that the sell-off on Black Monday began overseas, in countries likely to be adversely affected by a weak dollar, before spreading to the US.
Finally, algorithmic trading played a role. The algorithms in question, developed at the University of California, Berkeley, were known as “portfolio insurance.” Using computer modeling to optimize stock-to-cash ratios, portfolio insurance told investors to reduce the weight on stocks in falling markets as a way of limiting downside risk. These models thus encouraged investors to sell into a weak market, amplifying price swings.
Although the role of portfolio insurance is disputed, it’s hard to see how the market could have fallen by such a large amount without its influence. Twenty-first-century algorithmic trading may be more complex, but it, too, has unintended consequences, and it, too, can amplify volatility.
Despite all the drama on Wall Street in 1987, the impact on economic activity was muted. Consumer spending dropped sharply in October, owing to negative wealth effects and heightened uncertainty, but it quickly stabilized and recovered, while investment spending remained essentially unchanged.
What accounted for the limited fallout? First, the Fed, under its brand-new chairman, Alan Greenspan, loosened monetary policy, reassuring investors that the crash would not create serious liquidity problems. Market volatility declined, as did the associated uncertainty, buttressing consumer confidence.
Second, the crash did not destabilize systemically important financial institutions. The big money-center banks had used the five years since the outbreak of the Latin American debt crisis to strengthen their balance sheets. Although the Savings & Loan crisis continued to simmer, S&Ls were too small, even as a group, for their troubles to impact the economy significantly.
What, then, would be the effects of an analogous crash today? Currently, the US banking system looks sufficiently robust to absorb the strain. But we know that banks that are healthy when the market is rising can quickly fall sick when it reverses. Congressional moves to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act, relieving many banks of the requirement to undergo regular stress testing, suggest that this robust health shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Moreover, there is less room to cut interest rates today than in 1987, when the fed funds rate exceeded 6% and the prime rate charged by big banks was above 9%. To be sure, if the market fell sharply, the Fed would activate the “Greenspan-Bernanke Put,” providing large amounts of liquidity to distressed intermediaries. But whether Jay Powell’s Fed would respond as creatively as Bernanke’s in 2008 – providing “back-to-back” loans to non-member banks in distress, for example – is an open question.
Much will hinge, finally, on the president’s reaction. Will Trump respond like FDR in 1933, reassuring the public that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself? Or will he look for someone to blame for the collapse in his favorite economic indicator and lash out at the Democrats, foreign governments, and the Fed? A president who plays the blame game would only further aggravate the problem.
When talking about stock markets, there are three rules you have to remember. First, the stock market is not the economy. Second, the stock market is not the economy. Third, the stock market is not the economy.
So the market plunge of the past few days might mean nothing at all. On one side, don’t assume that there was a good reason for the slide (although the fact that the Dow fell 666 points on Friday hints either at satanic forces or at some mystical link with the Kushner family’s bum investment at 666 Fifth Avenue). When stocks crashed in 1987, the economist Robert Shiller carried out a real-time survey of investor motivations; it turned out that the crash was essentially a pure self-fulfilling panic. People weren’t selling because some news item caused them to revise their views about stock values; they sold because they saw that other people were selling.
And on the other side, don’t assume that the stock price decline tells us much about the economic future, either. The great economist Paul Samuelson famously quipped that the stock market had predicted nine of the past five recessions. That 1987 crash, for example, was followed not by a recession, but by solid growth.
Still, market turmoil should make us take a hard look at the economy’s prospects. And what the data say, I’d argue, is that at the very least America is heading for a downshift in its growth rate; the available evidence suggests that growth over the next decade will be something like 1.5 percent a year, not the 3 percent Donald Trump and his minions keep promising.
There are also suggestions in the data that risky assets in general — stocks, but also long-term bonds and real estate — may be overpriced. Leaving Bitcoin madness aside, we’re not talking dot-coms in 2000 or houses in 2006. But standard indicators are well above historically normal levels, and a reversion toward those norms could be painful.
About that plummet: If there was any news item behind it, it was Friday’s employment report, which showed a significant although not huge rise in wages. Now, rising wages are a good thing. In fact, the failure of wages to rise much until now has been a deeply frustrating deficiency in the otherwise impressively durable economic recovery that began early in the Obama administration.
But we’re now seeing fairly strong evidence that the U.S. economy is nearing full employment. The low measured unemployment rate is only part of the story. There’s also the growing willingness of workers to quit their jobs, something they don’t do unless they’re confident of finding new employment. And now wages are finally rising, suggesting that workers are gaining bargaining power, too.
Again, this is all good news. But it does mean that future U.S. growth can’t come from putting the unemployed back to work. It has to come either from growth in the pool of potential workers or from rising productivity, that is, more output per worker.
Yet with baby boomers retiring, growth in the U.S. working-age population, especially in prime working years, has slowed to a crawl, while productivity growth has been disappointing. Together, these factors suggest an economy likely to grow only half as fast as Trump promises.
Did the markets believe Trump? At the very least, they’ve been acting as if the U.S. economy still had lots of room to run; throwing cold water on that belief should mean both higher interest rates and lower stock prices, which is what we’re seeing.
But should we be worried about something worse than a mere downshift in growth? Well, asset prices do look high: A widely used gauge of stock valuations puts them at a 15-year high, while a conceptually similar measure says that housing prices have retraced a bit less than half the rise that culminated in the great housing bust.
Individually, these numbers aren’t that alarming: Stocks, as I said, don’t look nearly as overvalued as they did in 2000, housing not nearly as overvalued as it was in 2006. On the other hand, this time both markets look overvalued at the same time, at least raising the possibility of a double-bubble burst like the one that hit Japan at the end of the 1980s.
Fed Chairman Jerome ‘Jay’ Powell– How well he would handle a crisis if one developed, asks Dr. Krugman
And if asset prices take a hit, we might expect consumers — who have been spending heavily and saving very little — to pull back. Still, all of this would be manageable if key policymakers could be counted on to act effectively. Which is where I get worried.
It’s surely not a good thing that Trump got rid of one of the most distinguished Federal Reserve chairs in history just before markets started to flash some warning signs. Jerome Powell, Janet Yellen’s replacement, seems like a reasonable guy. But we have no idea how well he would handle a crisis if one developed.