The backstory for this election year lacks the urgency of war or of defeating George W. Bush but focuses on a most fateful question: When will this hemorrhaging debtor nation be compelled to pull back from profligate consumption and resign its role as “buyer of last resort” for the global economy? The smart money assumes such a momentous reckoning probably won’t occur in time to disrupt Bush’s re-election campaign, but it may well become the dominating crisis in the next presidential term, whoever is elected. At that point, the United States will lose its aura of unilateral superiority, and globalization will be forced to undergo wrenching change. The American economy, in other words, is in much deeper trouble than most people realize.
The facts are not secret. Despite ebbs and surges, the gap between US exports and imports has been steadily widening across three decades. The trade deficits of the early 1970s (due mainly to soaring oil prices) were trivial in size, but Americans were shocked in 1978 when the deficit hit $30 billion (TV sets and some cars were now made in Japan). During the 1980s, the trade deficit expanded enormously, as Washington’s strong- dollar policy crippled US manufacturers and companies moved jobs and production offshore in swelling volume. After a recession and dollar devaluation, the gap shrank briefly, but soon began expanding again.
For several decades, in fact, the federal government has tolerated and even encouraged the dispersal of American production overseas–first to secure allies during the cold war, later to advance the fortunes of US multinationals. No other major economy in the world accepts perennial trade deficits; some maintain huge surpluses. But American leaders and policy-makers are uniquely dedicated to a faith in “free market” globalization, and they have regularly promised Americans that despite the disruptions, this policy guarantees their long-term prosperity. Present facts make these long-held convictions look like gross illusion. By 1998, the trade deficit was back to a new high and expanding ferociously, despite supposed improvements in US competitiveness. Last year it set another new record: $489 billion.
Yet no one running for President has found the nerve to discuss these facts in a straightforward manner. Nor do the candidates have anything to say about how the country might avoid a potential calamity. A few wise heads in finance, like billionaire investor Warren Buffett, have sounded the alarm–Buffett refers to the United States as “Squanderville” and is shifting billions offshore into foreign currencies for safety. Meanwhile, political leaders remain silent.
The US economy, in essence, is being kept afloat by enormous foreign lending so that consumers can keep buying more imports, thus increasing the bloated trade deficits. This lopsided arrangement will end when those foreign creditors–major trading partners like Japan, China and Europe–decide to stop the lending or simply reduce it substantially.
That reckoning could arrive as a sudden thunderclap of financial crisis–spiking interest rates, swooning stock market and crashing home prices. More likely it will be less dramatic but equally painful. As foreign capital moves elsewhere and easy credit disappears for consumers, many Americans will experience a major decline in their living standards–a gradual grinding-down process that could continue for years. If the US government reacts passively and allows “market forces” to make these adjustments, the consequences will be especially severe for the less affluent–families already stretched by stagnating wages and too much borrowing.