Over the past months as the global economy heads for another recession, U.S. lawmakers have done their best to deflect blame by focusing on various external forces including the most popular straw-man of the day: China’s currency.
Almost every year for the last few years, Congress and the White House have pressed China to revalue its currency, the renminbi. And every time this happens, China responds that it will do what it always does: let it appreciate gradually, at about 5% per year as it has done for the last several years.
With the APEC Summit in Honolulu last month, Obama and the White House strategically --- and perhaps with an eye to the coming re-election campaign ---prodded at China and also managed to further deflect America’s problems by focusing attention on the Eurozone Crisis. Timothy Geithner, tailoring his speech for the Asia-Pacific audience, said Europe needs to “move quickly as instability hurts the U.S. and Asia.”
Geithner, the godfather of “too big to fail” from his days at the New York Fed, is an expert at delivering economic policy speeches that do not address America’s problems head-on. He is the mouthpiece of American weakness and misdirection, and has been recently seen so not only in China, but in Europe where people scoff, understandably, at the very idea of his giving advice to the bedraggled Eurozone.
The fact is that, right now, the US cannot dictate the conditions of economic gain. Although still the world’s largest economy by far, the US can no longer impose its mantra of ‘free-trade’ on the rest of the world. Instead it needs to take an honest look at the reality of the 21st Century global marketplace to better assess what it can do to improve its situation. The following suggestions might be a good start:
Forget About Economic and Political Ideologies
Many Americans, including politicians, are under the impression that certain ‘isms’ are magic bullets for prosperity while other ‘isms’ hold prosperity back. For instance, conservatives like to use the talking point that ‘socialism’ will destroy America. Similarly, many of those on the left protest against as what they see as ‘capitalism’ leading to widening inequality. Being for or against a particular ‘ism’ does nothing to improve the economic situation but only serves to inflame rhetoric and kill policies that could potentially help the U.S. economy.
One example is domestic government investment. Conservatives detest any kind of public spending proposal as ‘socialism’, even if public funds would be used for practical things like improving roads or public schools. On the other side, those on the left confuse high-level collusion between the financial sector and federal government with free-enterprise, which it is not. Geitner is not a capitalist, but a collusionist. He is no more a free-market capitalist than he is a Maoist.
Stop Blaming China
Nothing else debunks the validity of mainstream political and economic ideologies better than China’s rise to economic prominence. Still considered a ‘communist’ state by Cold-War minded individuals, China’s development would be best described as a gradual evolution in policy decisions rather than a static, ideologically-based approach. To be sure, the Communist Party desire to stay in power remains paramount. But this leads to policies designed to keep the economic engine humming as a way to maximize social stability.
Despite its advances, China still has tremendous obstacles to overcome including a still very low per-capita GDP and an environment polluted from industrial development. Yet it is the height of hypocrisy for the U.S. government to call out China on its currency manipulation and intellectual property theft when U.S. companies have benefited enormously from China’s opening up of the past three decades. This also has allowed U.S. consumers buy coveted products at low prices.
Of course, politicians at the Federal level (and even some Republican Presidential candidates) talk tough on China to score brownie points with voters. But meanwhile local state and city governments as well as prominent business leaders continue to send delegations to China in droves to promote cooperation and trade. Yes, China’s competitive cost of labor and lack of regulations has had a direct impact on the loss of jobs in the U.S. Unfortunately forcing China to float its currency will not reverse this trend as manufacturing jobs move to lower cost locales, and will continue to do so, perhaps to other countries.
Acknowledge That Not All Regulation Is Created Equally
Conservatives love to point the blame for economic malaise on government regulation. This argument is only half correct. For one thing there is not enough regulation on large banks in terms of how they divert investments when huge recent profits can be traced largely to fiscal largesse from Washington. Large banks received huge stimulus injections from the Federal Reserve during QE I and II, but did not invest enough of that money into the domestic economy. Instead, investment banks were free to take that money wherever maximum returns were to be had. That’s fine for an investor who has made his own way, but when the bank profits have stemmed from taxpayer largesse, some other priorities should creep in.
At the state and local municipal levels, regulation is perhaps the greatest roadblock to restoring economic prosperity. Crippling state and local taxes, along with outdated zoning regulations – such as restrictions on something as simple as running a business from one’s own home – slow enterprise formation. This is not to mention the cost of obtaining permits from various authorities and the constant threat of lawsuits. Clearly the pendulum – at least in some states such as California – has swung too far in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, given ubiquitous budget shortfalls across state and local levels, it is unlikely that local governments will be willing to decrease taxes and fees when they are in desperate need of revenue generation.
Reassess the American Social Contract
Conservatives balk at any mention of social programs, yet they fail to acknowledge that American corporate institutions no longer play the role they once did in promoting social stability. Across the board, businesses are understandably cutting retirement and healthcare benefits just in order to survive. America’s broken social contract is perhaps the greatest obstacle to restoring prosperity and economic growth.
Politicians are under the impression that high-taxes and runaway government spending are the primary cause for economic malaise. The reality is that America’s economy lags because individual spending is paralyzed due to increased costs of living across the board. The costs of housing, healthcare, and higher education have all increased in the past 10 years while wages and job opportunities have stagnated. This paralyzes risk-taking and investment in new businesses. Not only that, the presence of large oligopolies in everything from high-tech and cellular phones to food processing work to reduce competition from entrepreneurial upstarts.
The U.S. needs to stop looking at external factors as the source of its problems. Instead, American leaders should look inwards and take an honest assessment of the current problems resulting from the changes in the world over the past 20 years.
Unfortunately, no one on either side of the political aisle seems willing to step forward and lead the country out of its predicament. The Republican presidential contenders continue to waste time bickering about irrelevant social issues while President Obama jet sets around the world trying to allay doubts about the country’s decline.
America needs a concrete plan to get up and running again. This will mean more regulation at the macro level and less regulation at the lower levels. It will mean that Americans need to be confident that basic needs like housing and healthcare are taken care of so they can get on with starting businesses and creating employment. Education needs to promote trade skills and remove the stigma that expensive college degrees are mandatory for future prosperity.
Until these things happen, the U.S. economy will be stuck in its rut.
Adam Nathaniel Mayer is an American architectural design professional currently living in China. In addition to his job designing buildings he writes the China Urban Development Blog.
Photo courtesy of Bigstockphoto.com