Monday, October 19, 2009

U.S. Recovery Plan - Turning the Chinese into Americans

There have been many stories in the news lately, detailing statements from the U.S. government about the dollar. Statements known as “talking up the dollar” have been coming very frequently from Geithner, Bernanke and Obama. This, of course, is meant to make people around the world believe that, even though they’re doing nothing about it (and are actually making things worse every day), effective policies to keep the dollar strong will come in the future.

However, this strategy goes deeper than that. The U.S. government has now embarked on some pathetically futile strategy to try to change other peoples’ behavior to suit American economic needs. This is very evident in this recent speech by Bernanke, as reported by the NYT:

The problem, in essence according to Bernanke, is that people in Asia, and especially China, don’t spend money like drunken sailors, as is the custom in the U.S.. If the Chinese started consuming their own goods instead of selling them to other countries (and getting rich in the process), then the U.S. could become more competitive on the international arena.

It’s like asking the sports team you’re playing against to bench its best player, in order to make the game more fun for everyone else. How quaint.

The average person might not think much of a statement like “the trade imbalances on the world market are too large, and should be reduced by increased domestic consumption in China”. But it is in its core, a pathetic, vain and useless attempt to deal with the economic crisis in the U.S. by trying to take a non-existent shortcut.

Geithner, Bernanke and Obama know that the U.S. can’t export its way out of the crisis, because American goods cannot compete. If the dollar were to implode, American exports probably would be competitive for a while based on price alone, but the larger implications would unequivocally be irreversible, long-term economic stagnation. So again, the only way to take this shortcut is to tell others to change their ways. Now, how likely is it that that will happen?

Bernanke goes on to say that China should increase its social protection for citizens as a way to increase domestic consumption. Now, I’d be the first to agree with such a policy, but alas, China does not care about its own citizens. China is simply the authoritarian political/economical system it has always been. It doesn’t matter if the country calls itself communist, capitalist or imperial: the outcome is the same (the same goes for Russia, by the way). Much like the United States, whoever grabs the power has the power.

The much criticized “Asian values doctrine” can actually be helpful in this context. This doctrine, much favored by the Chinese government, is influenced by Confucianism and other eastern philosophies, but as applied to modern society, it proclaims that individual considerations, be they materialistic or human rights related, should be sacrificed for the good of the authority. I have myself met many Chinese students who have defended this doctrine vigorously.

Where does that leave the Chinese consumer? When, at any time, your house might be bulldozed for a new dam project, your farm taken away because a local politician sold it, or your salary might be cut in half, what is the most rational thing to do in order to protect yourself from catastrophe? You save money!

American politicians seem to think that Asian people save money as some kind of old, funny habit. In fact, they are just being rational, and Americans should obviously be doing the same thing, considering the fact that there is no social safety net in the U.S., and that we have a casino economy.

The Chinese will probably increase their own consumption eventually, but in order for that to be of any help to the U.S. they would have to start buying lots of American goods, and I don’t see that as very likely.

If the Chinese do increase their domestic consumption of domestic goods, I’m sure that won’t be at the expense of exports to the U.S.. They’ll just make up for that by building more factories and enlisting more unemployed people from the countryside to work in them.

Moving on to those who actually control things in China. Why the hell would they try to export less?? In 2007, George W. Bush asked Hu Jintao if they couldn’t please let the Chinese currency appreciate against the dollar. Jintao simply responded: “Why?”.

Embarking on a policy to export less, when exports have taken China out of the dark ages and into the light, would be something that not even a retarded Chinese equivalent of George W. Bush would attempt.

Advocating that the Chinese should be turned into Americans is so pathetic, I’m almost out of words.

Wait, I have a suggestion: if China actually were a communist country, exactly as described by Marx, then it would export almost nothing. So, the plan is simple: invade China, overthrow the authoritarian capitalist government, and install a philosophically pure communist rule! Then America can have its wonderful bubble/casino economy back on its feet!

Moreover, I advise that the winner-takes-all voting system should be destroyed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why Does the World Need the Dollar?

Earlier this year, I wrote a lot about inflation, and whether or not it would occur. I now believe that the dice has been thrown, that there’s no turning back: there will be large-scale inflation soon enough. The reason: the U.S. has spent almost $12 Trillion in an attempt to re-inflate the economy artificially.

To put it bluntly, the U.S. economy should no longer be described as being on a “sugar rush”. A more accurate analogy would be a cocaine high. What else could account for a 60% surge in stocks while the real unemployment rate is 20%?

Related to this is the U.S. dollar. Inflation hurts the dollar, but that’s far from the whole story. The dollar’s future as the world’s reserve currency is at stake. If everyone who holds dollars or dollar-related assets abroad starts thinking that these dollars will be worth a lot less in the near future, there will be no alternative to a currency crisis.

The fact that the U.S. has the world’s reserve currency enables it to spend far more than it makes. As I have mentioned before, this is the reason why a lot of economists, and especially American economists, are of the mindset that macro-economic models don’t apply to the U.S.. I think there’s some truth to that, because if you don’t HAVE TO ever pay back your loans, you don’t really have to worry about them. However, what happens on the day that you have to start paying?

Some prominent economists, most notably Paul Krugman, are currently claiming that a weak dollar is good for the U.S.. This will help U.S. exports, the theory goes. Also, according to Krugman, the U.S. needs to spend money on stimulus to get the economy going again, in other words through Keynesian spending.

Krugman does not address the potential of the dollar losing its position as the world’s reserve currency, but instead focuses his analysis on the short-term perspective of fighting the crisis and unemployment at all costs. What he does not realize is how real of a danger this is, but I’m sure he realizes the consequences if this were to actually happen. That’s probably why he’s not talking about it.

I believe that it actually wouldn’t take that much for the dollar to lose its position right now. Under the surface, many important international economic players have been discussing replacing the dollar with something else. These players include both wishful thinkers and those who would actually be in financial danger in the short term. If a few of these players were to move away from the dollar, it might set off a chain reaction that could crush the currency.

First this spring, people like Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez started talking about the need for replacing the dollar, while barely being able to hide their excitement.

Second, shortly after that, the IMF started dusting off the old idea of international drawing rights, or a basket of currencies. This debate was also helped forward by Joseph Stiglitz and Simon Johnson, both formerly connected to the World Bank and the IMF.

Third, and this is one of the most important ones, China started voicing concerns about the dollar. This time, Geithner had to go to China and give a speech about how great the dollar was doing. China buys a third of U.S. debt on the international market.

Fourth, and this one might turn out to be very important too, Japan elected a new non-conservative government for the first time ever. Japan buys about the same amount of U.S. debt as China does. One of the basic premises of the new Japanese government was that it would stop trying to be the U.S.’s lap dog. We’ll see how that goes, but I don’t think we can expect to see Japan follow Geithner’s every whim.

Fifth, rumor has it that the Arab Gulf states want to get rid of the dollar too. Their incomes are down by more than half since the beginning of the crisis, and they’re getting a little desperate. For the dollar to drop drastically in addition would be disastrous for them.

All these economic players are not dumb, they understand, in contrast to people like Krugman, that there are some very real dangers connected to owning dollars at the present time. They may run the risk of losing their savings and day-to-day incomes at the same time.

The number one question then becomes: Why does the world need the dollar?

The dollar was instituted as the world’s reserve currency at a time when the U.S. was a world leader in production as well as consumption. This meant that the dollar was both “as safe as houses” and “as good as gold”. An advanced economy with a competitive industry would be less likely to resort to irresponsible fiscal practices, and an insatiable, highly materialistic American consumer could keep the smoke in the chimneys in factories around the world. In other words, the U.S. was the economic engine of the world, and that’s why it made sense to use the dollar as the reserve currency.

However, the U.S. is not in the same position either in terms of production or consumption, and definitely not in terms of fiscal responsibility. The American manufacturing industry is not competitive, and the American service industry turned out to be smoke and mirrors on Wall Street. There is no way that the American consumer is going to get back to spending the way they used to, because it was all built on credit.

I believe that there is a shift happening in the world economy right now. In terms of the future developments of the balance of power between the big three blocks, Asia, the EU and the U.S., this is how I think about it:

It is clear to see that China will only continue to increase both its sophistication and volume of trade. The recent crisis has only strengthened the country’s position. The U.S. is no longer China’s biggest trading partner, the EU is. Japan is also increasing trade with China, and so is India.

It seems that the EU will continue to do what it is currently doing: to be competitive in very advanced industries, while not growing or shrinking much either way. I’m basing this on a continued focus on industrial policies, a good access to education and in general a less volatile society.

With respect to the U.S., it is very hard to see what the country has going for it. Where is the growth going to come? What is going to improve? The country has no industrial policy, and will not get one soon. One year at an American University costs as much as a Mercedes E-Class. The political system is deadlocked by lobbyists who bribe individual politicians. Industry resistance to innovation digs the grave of American manufacturing. More importantly: the country is bankrupt.

I believe that the world economy will shift, and that the dependence on the U.S. will have to be lowered. This will mean more power for Asia, and a tighter relationship to that continent on the part of both the U.S. and the EU. This will also mean that the dollar will most likely be given up as the world’s reserve currency.

What will this mean for the U.S.? Simply put: a drastic reduction in material prosperity across the board.

Moreover, I advise that the winner-takes-all voting system should be destroyed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ease of Doing Business at Home - Difficulty of Competing Internationally

“Saturn builds cars that Americans wanna buy!!”

I’ve seen this commercial very often in the last few weeks, but the guy in the clip did not really hit the nail on the head, now that Saturn will be closed. Apparently, Saturn did not make cars that Americans want to buy… (They were supposed to merge with “Penske”. Maybe it was George Costanza’s shoddy work on the “Penske file” that killed the deal…)

The Saturn brand was started as a way for American cars to compete with Japanese and European cars. In the commercial, the message is that what Americans now want in a car is fuel-efficiency, design, reliability and other things that are usually associated with foreign cars. By imitating these foreign cars, Saturn has claimed to also possess these attributes. However, just saying it, doesn’t make it so.

It has become blatantly apparent that the American car industry is uncompetitive. It is, however, not only the car industry that is uncompetitive. The U.S. manufacturing industry, about 7% of the economy, has been shrinking steadily for decades, and the size of it is now almost half of what it is in most other industrialized countries, as a portion of GDP.

There are several reasons for this, but one of the most important ones is that U.S. industrial goods cannot compete in the international trade arena.

It is quite easy to get a grip on the market dynamics of a domestic market; the market within just one country. For instance, if you raise the fuel efficiency standard on cars, cars will become more expensive, and in the short term, fewer people will buy them. That’s the easy bit.

Industrial products, and cars in particular, are for the most part dependent on international trade. When it comes to very advanced industrial goods, it is usually not possible to sell them in a single market and still be profitable; you need more customers, and industrial products almost always fit in to some type of chain of products that are dependent on each other.

For 30 or 40 years in the western industrialized world, a steady stream of legislation and industrial policies have followed much the same path. Legislation with respect to efficiency standards, safety standards, health care, vacation time and much more has followed the same trajectory in most industrialized countries: a significant increase in these standards and rights.

However, the exception is the United States.

As I outlined in my post about circular looting, (in the list to the right on March 19) I believe that the political system which allows large-scale corporate donations to politicians has created a “business-friendly” climate in the United States. This climate has been developing over the last 30 or 40 years, and has led to policies that make it as easy as possible for companies to turn quick profits in the U.S., at the cost of long-term perspectives.

Think of it this way: as U.S. automakers were making money selling gas guzzlers in the U.S. (while not being able to sell them elsewhere), automakers in Europe and Asia were being subjected to ever stricter regulations on efficiency standards, forcing them to develop better engines. In the U.S., on the other hand, the powerful industrial companies have stood in the way of any changes that might hurt their bottom lines in the short term.

This process also applies to a lot of other areas. European and Asian automakers had to deal with higher costs for vacation time, labor rights and taxes. This was by no means easy for these companies, but what this actually does in the long term is to make them more competitive.

The politicians of Europe and Asia developed this legislation because they thought it was the right thing to do. A cleaner environment and 6 weeks of vacation for everybody were simply seen as moral imperatives. They did not think of the eventual side effects.

Because industrial companies in Europe and Asia have had to fight much harder to remain profitable, they have developed better products and improved productivity and technology, while they have also had less of an impact on the environment and created better working conditions.

(Nowadays, it is widely known amongst economists that the previous estimates of American workers being more productive than others are not true. The PC revolution did increase this productivity, but it was later just inflated by Wall Street profits, which later turned out to be an illusion of productivity)

OK, I know what you’re going to say: the UAW has cost the American auto industry so much that they are the reason American cars are not competitive. I agree that there is some truth to that. The UAW is what I would call a “labor aristocracy union”. Such unions are very selfish (in the beginning very racist), and have no concern for society as a whole. That is very different from European unions, which would for instance fight for more vacation for everybody, not just autoworkers.

However, the over-reaching of the UAW does not explain the fact that innovation was stifled, and that such massive lobbying to stop any improvements was undertaken for decades. The auto companies also agreed that they should be the ones to pay for workers’ health insurance, which is something I disagree with. This stance comes from the anti-socialist movement of the early 20th century. Again, the companies chose this path themselves.

The short-term perspective of the American industrial sector which has involved fierce resistance to any environmental, safety or labor-related reforms, has brought the sector to its knees. In economic boom times, the American model works. In economic recessions, the weak will be taken to the slaughter.

This is the perfect example of what the Freiburg school of economics is all about: we need capitalism, but the framework within which capitalism exists can make it stronger, and make it function much better.

A “Freiburgian” would say: Saturn didn’t make cars that Americans wanted to buy, because the economic and societal framework surrounding the auto industry promoted a hunt for short-term profits.

Moreover, I advise that the winner-takes-all voting system should be destroyed.