Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Decline

. Sunday, November 7, 2010

Consider the never-ending narrative of American decline. My historical knowledge isn't super-deep, but I know for certain that that drum has been kicked at least since Sputnik ('50s), continuing through the Vietnam War ('60s), the closing of the gold window and the oil embargo/stagflation ('70s), the rise of Japan ('80s), European integration ('90s), and now the rise of the BRICs, especially China. During this entire period critics of the U.S. have focused on its sclerotic political system and messy "laissez-faire" capitalism (ha!), which was clearly inferior to the svelte technocratic industrial policies of the USSR OPEC Japan NICs E.U. China. The U.S. is becoming more and more irrelevant, I keep hearing. The quick rebound of China, Brazil, and Germany is proof that the world is decoupling from the U.S. The world is becoming more multipolar, the U.S. needs to learn how to shift into obsolescence and be just another state among states.

And yet when the U.S. announces that it is going to reduce some of the maturity of its sovereign debt in order to boost domestic demand -- an equivalent action to normal monetary policy operations, except on 5-year T-bills rather than shorter maturities, at a time when markets expect deflation (see graph above) -- the world goes ballistic. Huh? If the U.S. was as vulnerable as folks make it out to be, and the rest as powerful and resilient, this shouldn't even register. Instead the Chinese complain about "currency manipulation" as if QE2 wasn't a demand-side domestic monetary policy. Brazil complains about capital inflows creating bubbles, and institutes capital controls to counteract them, as if protecting local capital owners and commodity exporters in one of the most inegalitarian countries on earth had nothing to do with it. Japan enacts its own QE, and South Korea is pushing for, er, something to deal with exchange rates at the upcoming G20 meeting it hosts. The entire industrialized world is concerned that a relatively small program in the U.S. is going to threaten their entire economies.

(Either that or they're using it as cover to justify policies that they wish to enact anyway. I actually think this is more likely, since they can always continue to devalue against the dollar without retribution if they wish, and anything that boosts American demand is good for Chinese, Japanese, Brazilian, and South Korean exporters. But I don't know that for certain; maybe these leaders really are freaked out.)

Of course all of this follows a financial crisis that originated in the U.S. but was not contained within it. Forgive me for thinking that at this point the importance of the U.S. to the global economy almost cannot be overstated. At this point I wouldn't be terribly surprised if the replacement of Bretton Woods II is a variant of Bretton Woods I. The U.S. needs to recognize its place in the world, and act like a hegemon should. There's not chance the G-20 is capable of doing it.

So far I think we've done a reasonably good job -- the trading system has remained intact, warnings of competitive currency depreciations have been all smoke and no fire, countercyclical lending has gotten to states (like Greece) that have needed it, international institutions have held together remarkably well -- but we can do even better. Now is the time to finish the Korea FTA and give fast-track negotiating authority to Obama. Doha isn't going anywhere right now, but in a few years time there could be a window for movement, and it would be good to have the tracks laid ahead of time. Now is the time to let other countries devalue against the dollar if they need to, while still pursuing policies that will boost domestic demand, including demand for imports. Yes that hurt employment in tradable sectors, but mostly in the sort of less-skilled manufacturing that will not yield new jobs anyway. In the meantime, it will boost employment in importing sectors, and provide low-cost goods for struggling households. I wish it were possible to push for immigration reform too, since it's the time for that as well, but I'm pretty sure the sort of immigration reform we'd be likely to see right now isn't the sort I'd support.

Now is emphatically not the time to "get tough" with other countries that also pursue policies in their domestic interest, even if they have some short-run negative consequences for the U.S. There is a lot of low-hanging positive-sum fruit hanging out there. There's no need to take an axe to the trunk.

After all, if the Federal Reserve can't get the U.S. economy moving, the Bank of Japan won't be able to either.

The U.S. should not set policy out of fear of decline.


Emmanuel said...

This post is oddly passive-aggressive and very selective in its interpretation.

Again, it's odd that you consider job cuts to be mostly of less skilled people when your very own institution is laying off faculty but pretending it isn't. Unless you're insinuating the UNC isn't an institution of higher learning, that is (heh-heh). If you can't see the decline in your own backyard, then I'm not surprised that blinders are at work everywhere else

There's also the matter of continuous declines in income in the US, but I guess that's not a overall sign of decline, right?

Fortunately, there are still purveyors of Real Man IPE out there. Here's what I suggest instead: acknowledge America's many faults and address them instead of pretending there isn't anything much wrong.

Ultimately, the source of American decline is this sort of smug self-assurance when there are many out there who aren't content about getting fatter, dumber, and poorer.

Anonymous said...

Yo, Emmanuel: Idiot much?

The Decline
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