Jobs creation, industrial production and car sales are slipping, and consumer confidence and stock prices have turned south. The U.S. economy may be tumbling into a second recession or worse, hitting the mat for good. Solutions are at hand, but politicians - and voters - won’t embrace what needs doing.
The U.S. economy lacks not ideas and enterprise, but is short on customers for what Americans make. The huge trade deficit sends abroad dollars that Americans earn to pay for imports but do not return to purchase exports and create jobs.
With a trade deficit exceeding 3% of GDP, either Americans borrow and spend more than they earn to keep the economy going, or the demand for U.S. made goods and services is insufficient to accomplish full employment.
Too many Americans can’t find decent paying jobs, houses don’t sell and prices stay depressed, and consumers don’t spend. In the funk, unemployment stays above 9%, and counting adults stuck in part-time jobs or too discouraged to look, and young college graduates flipping hamburgers, it is closer to 20%.
Oil and goods from China account for the entire U.S. trade deficit - on everything else, trade is balanced.
The United States produces only 5.6 million barrels a day of oil and imports 9.6 million barrels - gasoline accounts for 8.3 million barrels. The United States could easily increase domestic production by 3 or 4 million barrels a day over several years and slice 2 million barrels off fuel consumption by using readily available, more fuel efficient internal combustion engines and plug in hybrids, and further deploying domestic natural gas use.
Drilling in the United States is an anathema to Democrats, owing to environmental concerns, but not drilling and importing what oil is needed merely shifts environmental hazards abroad - mostly to developing countries - where those are handled less effectively. If environmentalists really believe in thinking globally and acting locally, they should get behind domestic drilling if it is coupled with a program to substantially reduce domestic gasoline use.
Curtailing gasoline use will be a bitter pill for Republicans - more government intervention in the form of higher mileage standards and assistance to automakers to more rapidly transform their factories. Fanciful investments in electric cars are nice - but electric solutions put in place by the Obama Administration won’t generate sufficient reductions in gasoline use for at least a decade.
Driving won’t be any cheaper - gas prices would not be much lower and money to aid industrial transformation must be taken from other places - but both policies would keep the money Americans spend on imported oil at home, create high paying jobs and get the economy growing again.
Beijing engages in quantitative easing on a grand scale - hogging growth and exporting inflation. It is time to recognize what it does - currency manipulation and protectionism to gain competitive advantage - and address it forthrightly.
Each year, China maintains an undervalued currency by printing yuan to purchase about $450 billion in dollars and other foreign currencies. This reduces domestic Chinese consumption and places a 35% subsidy on Chinese exports, accelerates investment and jobs creation in China, and suppresses growth in the United States and Europe, which contributes importantly to sovereign debt problems on both sides of the Atlantic.
China also uses those yuan to subsidize purchases of oil and other scarce commodities it lacks, creating global inflation.
Stagflation results - slower growth and more inflation in the United States and Europe.
Diplomacy has failed to persuade China to relent; raising the value of its currency 10% doesn’t do much good when the intrinsic value of the yuan continues to rise, and it remains undervalued by several multiples of 10%.
The solution is to impose a tax on the conversion of dollars into yuan, either for the purpose of importing Chinese goods or investing in China, equal to China’s currency market intervention divided by its exports - 35%. The EU could do the same, if it likes, on euro-yuan conversions.
When Beijing stops intervening, the tax stops. In the meantime, prices that drive investment and jobs creation would be more closely aligned with those that would prevail, absent Chinese currency market manipulation and protectionism. Those would be free trade prices.
That tax bothers everyone but look outside.
America is collapsing. China’s currency market intervention is destroying the U.S. industrial base, thrusting millions into unemployment, driving up global energy consumption and pollution, and undermining the free trade system that took half a century to build.
Free trade is great stuff, and Americans should want to compete with Chinese workers on that basis - both countries would grow. But with China’s currency manipulation unanswered, it’s like wrestling bare handed with an opponent holding an axe.
China continues to grow and will soon overtake the United States. Yet, U.S. politicians and pundits argue about spending cuts and tax increases when neither will help us avoid the immediate threat of a double dip recession or ultimately the decline of America.
Then whose example will the struggling nations of Asia and Africa aspire? America’s democracy or China’s autocracy?
The steps outlined are extraordinary and are hardly in the U.S. tradition of free markets and private enterprise. But America is confronted by challenges and threats to its prosperity and democracy on a scale not seen since the Great Depression and World War II.
Extraordinary times require actions to match.
Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland School, and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.