In The End of the American Century, I point to China as one of America’s new rivals, but also as a major factor in U.S. profligacy and in U.S. economic decline. To a large extent, the false U.S. affluence of the last decade has been underwritten by China, in two ways: the country has supplied American consumers with cheap toys, gadgets and clothes; and has been bailing out the federal government by purchasing U.S. debt.
The rapid growth of foreign ownership of U.S. debt is yet another dimension of the unraveling of the U.S. economy. In 1970, only 4 percent of U.S. debt was held by foreigners; now almost half is. In recent years, foreigners have financed about 80 percent of the increase in public debt. The two biggest holders of U.S. debt are Japan and China, with China alone owning about $1 trillion in U.S. debt. Senator Hillary Clinton raised concerns about foreign ownership of U.S. debt in early 2007, when she sent a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. “In essence,” she observed,
"16% of our entire economy is being loaned to us by the Central Banks of other nations."
This was a major reason why both the American consumer and the federal government could spend so far beyond their means in the last twenty years, and why the U.S. economy has gotten so severely out of whack. The large-scale purchases of U.S. debt by foreigners helped keep interest rates low, encouraging consumers to borrow more than they could afford for the purchase of cars and houses and other consumer goods. It was a kind of giant international Ponzi scheme. The Chinese lent us money so we could purchase their products. But when the bottom fell out, the economies of both countries began to fall apart.
It is astonishing that so few public officials and economists recognized this enormous looming problem. It is not so surprising, perhaps, that the Bush administration missed the boat on this, because they were either oblivious or willfully ignorant on just about every major issue facing the United States, economic or otherwise. As the New York Times observes in a long and helpful overview of the situation, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and the Bush administration “treated the record American trade deficit and heavy foreign borrowing as an abstract threat, not an urgent problem.”
Ben Bernanke, an esteemed economist if there ever was one, acknowledges that “a better balance of international capital flows early on could have significantly reduced the risks to the financial system.” But “this could only have been done through international cooperation, not by the United States alone.” Bernanke’s view of the problem, according to the Times, “fit the prevailing hands-off, pro-market ideology of recent years.”
This illustrates, in two ways, why the U.S. has fallen so far, so fast. The problem, as Bernanke correctly noted, required international cooperation. This has been a serious weak spot for the U.S. of course, particularly in the last eight years. The U.S. has ignored, denigrated or flouted international laws, conventions and institutions—especially during the Bush administration but before that as well. Because we did not welcome international cooperation in the past—on global warming, the Iraq War, the International Criminal Court, etc.—other countries were increasingly disinclined to look for the U.S. for leadership. This is now being played out in the international economic realm as well as the political.
The second telling aspect of the Bush/Greenspan/Bernanke approach is the “pro-market ideology of recent years.” Under Bush, the “hands off” approach to economic and social problems in the U.S. has indeed taken on the rigidity of an “ideology.” It is no longer simply a policy advocated by policy-makers, but a set of ideas promoted by ideologues. We see this in a whole array of hugely important issues facing the U.S., which have all been ignored or marginalized for eight years. The lack of regulation of financial markets is the most obvious example, but one also sees the “hands off” approach causing tremendous deterioration of U.S. schools, health care, welfare, infrastructure, and the environment, to say nothing of the elephants in the room—Social Security and Medicare.
Treasury Secretary Paulson told the Times “you don’t get dramatic change, or reform or action, unless there is a crisis.” This seems a strange way to run the ship of state. But the crisis is here, Mr. Secretary. Now what do we do?