Trumponomics and the Great Rebalancing

Donald Trump’s election victory on November 8th is now a fact. Reactions to it have not been lacking, of course. On the economic front, they have ranged from the cautiously optimistic to predictions of utter doom. For their part, the financial markets went from downturn to upturn in short order (as chronicled here by Jerry Bowyer). But the financial markets, disconnected as they are from the real economy, are not very good arbiters of broader economic trends. What is important is the concrete policy decisions the Trump administration is going to make with regard to trade.

This is not to diminish the importance of other measures, such as tax policy. These will play an important albeit subordinate role in the kind of economic performance the country and the world will experience in the coming years. But the key issue – and significantly, one of the key issues addressed in Trump’s campaign – is trade. In terms of economic importance, nothing else comes close. To paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead, contemporary economic policy consists of a series of footnotes to trade policy.

For those who have been following this blog, such a statement should come as no surprise. Allow me to reiterate the main points:

  1. The global economy is so structured as to be systemically imbalanced. Certain countries run persistent, sizeable trade deficits; certain others run the mirror image of persistent, sizeable surpluses.
  2. Far from being innocuous, these imbalances are unsustainable, and leave a trail of carnage in their wake. They are unsustainable because they are financed, not by Palley’s “virtuous circle of growth” characterized by the circular flow of production and consumption, but by indebtedness. The trail of carnage is the hollowed-out production capacity in rich countries combined with sweatshop production in low-wage countries.
  3. The benefits of this system accrue to transnational elites: first, transnational corporations which profit from “buying low and selling high” within this made-to-order framework, then the politicians, media entities, and academics who serve to justify the framework, mainly by deflecting attention from its true nature and toward the ersatz quest for “justice” as embodied in identity politics, which locks subjugated populations permanently into this exploitative framework.

Great profits are being made within this arrangement, the flip side of the great losses (the ever-burgeoning global debt burden) the tab for which will be picked up by future generations (hello Millenials!). It stands to reason that anyone threatening to upset this particular apple cart will incur the ire of the entire range of vested interests, popularly known as “The Establishment” and more scientifically as the Transnational Capitalist Class.

The gravy train must keep flowing, and the uneasiness bordering on panic bordering on hysteria evidencing itself in much of the post-election news reporting has its roots precisely in the realization that (to use yet another of these analogies) the punch bowl is about to be taken away.

Now then, if these trade deficits are as important as I am claiming they are, what can be done about them? Obviously, this will be easier said than done: not only will there be the implacable resistance of special interests, there will be the entire set of problems that is involved in what has come to be known as “The Great Rebalancing.” For what is required is that entire national economies be reordered to restore the “virtuous circle of growth” and break some seriously settled habits.

On the export side, there are two major forms of imbalance that need to be addressed: the Asian Tiger model and the German model. Let’s take these one at a time.

The Asian Tiger model was pioneered by Japan and took flight during the 1970s upon the breakup of the Bretton Woods arrangement. Ultimately it is based on the artificial suppression of the currency’s exchange rate in order to ensure export sales. The export industry in combination with government controls the economy. They structure the economy in order to benefit the export industry at the expense of domestic industry and trade. In particular, the banking system is subjugated and forced to perform certain functions, such as paying below-market interest rates on both savings (thus penalizing households) and loans (thus benefiting business).

One result of this model is that it keeps money earned from exports (which earnings are denominated in dollars) from re-entering the ordinary market (a process called sterilization), as this would cause the currency to appreciate. Rather than being repatriated to the producers, much of those dollar earnings are kept in dollars, held by the country’s central bank, and invested in US government debt (Treasury bills and bonds). In this manner, earnings are taken out of the ordinary market and kept on the financial markets, leading to asset bubbles. This money can return to the ordinary market and so fund consumption, but not by the original earners spending it (which would reinstate the virtuous circle); rather, it is borrowers, who are given access to this liquidity, and in this manner are allowed to fund consumption in an unsustainable manner. This was one of the factors behind the boom-bust of the first decade of the 21st century.

The German model differs from the Asian Tiger model because it does not depend on obtaining competitive advantage via manipulation of exchange rates or by sterilizing foreign earnings. Rather, it achieves this through fiscal policy, mainly through measures to suppress consumption. Wages are held down in the interest of competitiveness, and consumption is discouraged by means of a consumption tax (VAT). The result is the same: the producers, whether they produce for domestic or foreign consumption, are kept from spending their own earnings. These earnings are simply foregone. This benefits the export sector by improving terms of trade, but it does not benefit the country, because those foregone earnings could have gone to generate and sustain the domestic economy, thus reducing the country’s dependence upon the vicissitudes of export markets.

What these methods have in common is the suppression of consumption. It is perhaps no coincidence that the countries engaging in these practices have long traditions of frugality and asceticism. This is not the place to enter into a discussion regarding the relation of religion and morality to economic growth, although I do reserve the right to do so at some point in the future. I only raise the point to indicate something that cannot be mere coincidence. And indeed, the countries on the other end of the trade relation – the net consumers – have gotten a name for being spendthrift and lazy, incapable of competing. The reality, as we hope to explore another time, is more complicated.

So, in order to achieve this “great rebalancing,” essentially two things have to happen – countries need to reorient their fiscal and monetary policies to, in the case of the producing countries, promote domestic consumption, and in the case of consuming countries, promote domestic production. In the latter case, a reworking of venerable “import replacement” policies is in order. A focus on the domestic economy is required which will restore the virtuous circle of growth and break the cycle of unsustainable debt financing.

What kind of policies would the Trump administration need to pursue in order to further this proposed state of affairs?

First of all, one thing needs to be made clear. All the saber rattling on the part of countries in Europe and Asia with regard to a trade war, such as China’s threat to buy Airbus aircraft rather than Boeing aircraft, are nothing more than that. As with the dire warnings surrounding Brexit earlier, the countries doing the threatening are, in point of fact, in no position at all to threaten. They are running trade surpluses with the US or the UK, as the case may be, which means that they selling more to those countries than they are buying from them. This means that they need those countries’ markets, and if they cannot sell to them, they will be left with surplus production and nowhere to offload it. Hence, these countries know as well as anyone that saber rattling is useless at best and counterproductive at worst.

What about US threats of (to cut to the chase) a 45% tariff on imported goods from China? This would be the least desirable method of achieving some sort of rebalancing. Leaving aside the corruption involved in business lobbying for protected status (as noted in 1931 – another period of protectionist agitation – by James Harvey Rogers), such a tariff would dislocate whole industries and so undermine economic growth in the short to medium term. In the longer term, a tariff might lead to a functioning economy in the US, as domestic industry restored itself to some level of its former glory, but it would damage China severely, without providing any mitigating mechanism to enable it to begin producing for the domestic economy on a sustainable basis.

There are far better and more mutually agreeable ways to engage the great rebalancing than punitive tariffs. Firstly, and Mr. Trump is absolutely right on this, currency manipulation has to be stopped. While China may not be engaging in this at the moment, it most certainly was for a long period in the late 1990s and up until the crash of 2008, leading to its mountain of dollar reserves. In this regard, Trump is closing the gate after the horse has bolted, at least respecting China, but the entire system of sterilization and amassing of dollar reserves has to be put an end to.

Then there are the domestic policies that structurally suppress consumption. These have to be reversed. In the case of China, household consumption in 2010 declined to an “astonishing” (Michael Pettis’s word) 34% of GDP, astonishing in view of the fact that for most countries this figure is at 60-70%. Behind this low level of domestic consumption are policies promoting forced savings and what Michael Pettis refers to as “financial repression,” wherein banks operate to transfer savings from households to business and government at below-market rates. The German method utilizing wage restraint and consumption tax must also be reversed.

The Trump administration must insist on these common-sense changes in domestic policies on the part of its trade partners, because they are not mere matters of domestic concern: they affect trading partners as well. Pettis shows this in ch. 6 of his book The Great Rebalancing. Using the case of Germany vis-à-vis Spain, he outlines how domestic policies in Germany affect Spain’s economic prospects, and how both countries need to make coordinated adjustments to ensure a transition to a balanced economy. The same has to be done on a global scale.

On the domestic front, changes to the tax regime regarding business, bringing it more in line with other countries’ corporate tax rates, will be of some help, as will various initiatives to reconstruct and bring jobs back to the inner cities, and the various infrastructure projects. But these will be of little use if the main issue, international trade and its discontents, is not addressed comprehensively and thoroughly. Otherwise, the opportunity presented when the US electorate dodged the bullet of a Clinton presidency, which would have sealed the deal for the transnational corporate class, will have proved to be only a bump in the road to Elysium.

On the Road to Elysium When fiction approaches fact

The 2013 movie Elysium depicts a dystopian future of unremitting, jarring poverty juxtaposed with serene, detached wealth. Literally detached: wealth resides in a lavishly equipped, lebensraum-furnished space station, high above an impoverished, exhausted Earth. The planet is only useful as a source of provision and maintenance for the space station; its fruits have been extracted and depleted, while the population is mainly left to its own devices, an excess labor force without the capacity to sustain a decent standard of living, the only purpose of which is to serve the elite floating high above.

It is a haunting image, as it should be. And, admittedly, an extreme one. But it resonates – because in this day and age, the gap between rich and poor has been steadily widening, bringing the Elysium scenario within the realm of the plausible. The purpose of this article is to explore how this has come about.

For starters, the problem with the world system as currently configured is that it divorces consumption from production – a recipe for disaster. For consumption needs to be funded, and there are only two ways to do that. Either produce, or borrow. The modern world has chosen – or, our betters have chosen – for the latter.

In the ideal economy, production and consumption are in a circular flow; supply creates its own demand. Production is in equilibrium with consumption, and pays for consumption. There are neither gluts nor shortfalls.

Of course, this is unrealistic. No economy is a closed loop like this. First, as discussed in the accompanying course as well as in this article, the so-called “problem of saving” makes its appearance, and complicates matters. This leads to two markets, not one – the ordinary market of production and consumption, and the financial market of credit and debt. This two-market framework is a natural outgrowth of the money economy. There is no ultimate disconnect between production and consumption here: the monies that flow into the financial market eventually flow back to the ordinary market in one way or another, closing the production-consumption loop.

But in the modern world system the circular flow of production and consumption is purposely disrupted. This is the heart of what is wrong with the world economy today. It is the issue that urgently needs to be addressed, because it is producing a time bomb that eventually must go off, with unforeseen and unfathomable results.

The disruption of production and consumption is primarily visible in the balance of trade. Nowadays, trade relations are characterized by sustained, sizeable imbalances. The inevitable byproduct of these imbalances, and what makes these imbalances so lethal, is debt. In a previous article, I wrote: “Trade imbalances have to be ‘financed’: in other words, they are paid for by debt. When trade imbalances are incurred, the countries running trade surpluses are also exporting capital: this is called a capital deficit. What they are doing is exporting demand, by exporting excess savings. To put it bluntly: they are extending the credit to the consuming countries that these countries require to buy their production.”

These countries are exporting demand. What does this mean? It means they are seeking to sell production, not to their own, domestic consumers, but to foreign ones. They are disrupting the circular flow. In a normal situation, they would not be exporting demand; domestic demand would match supply; they would be buying what they sell. Of course there are always surpluses and deficits, because no economy is entirely closed. But the sustained effort, the policy decision, to “export demand,” which means to shift consumption abroad, would not exist.

How do they do this? By suppressing domestic consumption. In other words, domestic producers are not being allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The demand they otherwise would generate is being taken from them. Normally this would result in overproduction, a glut of goods and services, and prices would adjust accordingly, falling, bringing the unbalanced situation into equilibrium. But through various manipulations outlined here (under the rubric of currency manipulation), domestic production is put out of joint with domestic consumption, the producers are robbed of a portion of their earnings, and the shortfall is made up for by foreign consumption, which picks up the slack.

Why do they do this? Why engage in a conspiracy against the domestic economy in order to promote exports? Back in the late 1800s, the British economist John Hobson already had an answer. For him, British imperialism was a net loss, costing the country far more than it provided in terms of income or revenue. Not only was it prohibitively expensive, but it disadvantaged a broad swathe of domestic producers. Why engage in it then? His conclusion was that it provided an advantage to various vested interests – particular interests, as opposed to the common good – which in turn were able to influence policy in their favor. In other words, imperialism and colonialism subordinated the national interest to particular interests.

The same thing is happening today. Certain countries are pushing exports, generating massive trade surpluses year after year; while certain other countries are living beyond their means, running the mirror image of trade deficits, year after year. The usual mantra we then hear is that the exporting countries are virtuous, disciplined, hard-working, while the importing countries are lazy, decadent, improvident – but it would be more accurate to characterize each as victims of a regime, which exploits both ends of the trade equation.

The transnational capitalist class (TCC – of which more here), composed of various manifestations of “Davos Man,” is the ultimate beneficiary. By engaging in this debt-funded, imbalance-riddled economic system, it is able to funnel the surplus value generated by forced savings into its own pockets, while allowing various debt mechanisms to provide for the indispensable consumption that enables this gravy train to keep going.

In other words, a significant portion of the ever-burgeoning global debt burden is simply the flip side of an equally significant sum of profits disappearing straight into the pockets of our modern-day benefactors, the global corporate elite, along with their cronies, facilitators, and enablers in their various support roles in government, politics, academia, the entertainment industry, and the news media. The tab will be paid by future generations, when those various debt instruments come due. Après nous, le déluge.

This is the source of the widening gap between rich and poor worldwide. This is the road to Elysium.

How is this debt-funded consumption sustained? Let the reader understand: this is the key to the modern political scene. This arrangement, this racket, runs through a political system revolving around identity politics. This is what makes the gimcrack mechanism go. Identity politics, as I outline here, serves to defuse and divert opposition to the global capitalist regime. It deflects leftist agitation away from its home base, the class struggle, toward the safe – for hegemonic capitalism – alternative of identity politics. In fact, it serves as a key brick in the edifice of this hegemonic capitalism, for identity politics dovetails precisely with the culture-ideology of consumerism that locks peoples and nations into their economic roles within the system.

It turns out that identity politics provides the justification, under the guise of “human rights,” for never-ending deficit spending on entitlements. In other words, not only does it foster the ideology of consumerism, it also provides the legitimation for debt-financed consumption, which is the key to maintaining the gravy train of profits into the pockets of Davos Man.

In this age, respect for human rights is considered the sine qua non of civilized society. But what are human rights really? An understanding of their origin sheds light on their conflicted character. They came along during the “Age of Enlightenment” of the 18th century, to take the place of religion as the source of law. As I wrote back in 1995:

Religion was relegated to the privacy of one’s own conscience. It was therefore also removed from any influence on public life. What replaced it, in early liberalism, was a focus on property rights; when that produced alienation, the focus shifted to collective property redistribution. These are modernism’s first principles, and they are Epicurean, materialist, consumerist. Both foci, property and redistribution, have at their core the consumerist individual. It is consumption – appetite – which this society worships. Human rights mean that each individual has the inalienable right to satisfy those appetites. To deny one such a right is to violate one’s integrity as a human being. When a conflict of appetites arises, or when appetite conflicts with a real right (such as with abortion), the strongest (i.e., the one with the best legal representation or the most effective propaganda machine) wins.

Hence, consumerism is not simply a function of households spending beyond their means. It is also a function of entitlements, as currently defined and implemented by welfare states. In his scathing indictment of rights-as-entitlements, P.J. O’Rourke was not far from the mark: “Freedom is not … entitlement. An entitlement is what people on welfare get, and how free are they? It’s not an endlessly expanding list of rights — the ‘right’ to education, the ‘right’ to health care, the ‘right’ to food and housing. That’s not freedom, that’s dependency. Those aren’t rights, those are the rations of slavery — hay and a barn for human cattle.” If this sounds harsh and unfair, think about it. These are the rations of a peculiar form of slavery – to an unseen hegemonic power holding the nations in its sway. We are satisfied to eat the crumbs falling from the table of the TCC.

Government-financed “discretionary spending” keeps the boat floating, even when jobs are scarce and salaries are stagnant, and households have maxed out their credit cards. The economies of the consumer countries have for years had their production capacity hollowed out as with numbing regularity jobs have been shipped overseas. This has had the inevitable effect of producing a structural shortfall in purchasing power. This shortfall was first made up for with the real estate bubble of the early 2000s, but since the crash, it has been maintained by massive deficit spending on the part of the Obama administration.

How the pie is divided up, and who gets a seat at the table, now turns out to be a crucial factor behind the identity politics agenda. The government now plays the role of benefactor to various disadvantaged groups, which are encouraged to develop and maintain an identity precisely as disadvantaged groups, in order to form a consumption-based coalition to 1) maintain the power of the ruling elite (in other words, deflect and coopt the class struggle), and 2) maintain demand for below-market global production, thus keeping the gravy train going.

In the current US political constellation, African-Americans are perhaps the key members to be mollified in terms of this “coalition management.” African-Americans have been whipped up into a frenzy of anti-authoritarianism (mainly against the police, but also against the white majority generally) which seemed a bit odd to those of us who thought that the worst aspects of racism were behind us, but who now have almost been led to believe that racism has never been worse. The plot thickens when one realizes that groups like the Ford Foundation and George Soros’s Open Society Foundation have contributed tens, if not hundreds, of millions to the major front group for this movement, Black Lives Matter. Knowing what we now know, it would appear that this is yet another effort to shunt a disgruntled voting bloc away from dangerous activity (such as voting for a presidential candidate who wishes to confront the system as presently constructed, rather than maintain it) and back into the safe confines of identity politics, in which factions vie with each other for favors, rather than with the central power for justice.

The timing of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement lends credence to the notion that this agitation has been part of a strategy of coalition management. The death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 can be seen as a watershed in this emergence, for it was soon after that the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag first made its appearance. But it wasn’t until the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 that things became heated. This was followed by the incidents involving Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Eric Garner in New York. By now this has generated an all-out attack on policing specifically and the allegedly racist character of white society generally, with incidents of attacks on both becoming a drearily repeating spectacle.

What is curious about this, again, is the timing. For the so-called “new wave” of immigration began at roughly the same time. Reports of this “new wave” began trickling in in 2013. This new wave of immigrants, bolstered by a massive influx of children (itself spurred by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, President Obama’s 2012 initiative to provide illegal immigrant minors), produced a surge in numbers of new immigrants, both legal and illegal, in 2014 and 2015.

In terms of coalition management, this influx creates problems. The two groups, illegal or unauthorized immigrants and African-Americans, compete for the same jobs and the same benefits from government. That the administration and the Democratic Party is promoting and indeed sponsoring the wave of immigration has the potential to not sit well with existing coalition members like African-Americans, or the working class generally. Therefore, it would seem entirely plausible that, to deflect attention from this conflict, the African-American community has been stoked with allegations of rampant racism, making use of every plausible such incident to reinforce a general narrative that the enemy is not a competing coalition member, viz., immigrants, but the Other, those outside the Democrat coalition, or in other words, whites, conservatives, the police, Christians. This is a matter of speculation; perhaps Wikileaks emails will shed more light on the decision-making process.

Regardless, this is what coalition management  in the age of identity politics looks like.

There is one more aspect that deserves highlighting, and it is connected with the need to maintain consumption levels in Western countries. The phenomenon of mass migration, encompassing both immigration and the influx of Middle Eastern refugees, runs contrary to the national interest of the target countries, and the widespread opposition to the scale with which it is being conducted has fed massive unrest against the ruling class. What is being missed in all of this is that these newly imported populations constitute fresh sources of consumption, regardless of whether employment and thus purchasing power is available for them or not. For in the age of human rights and the welfare state, consumption will be maintained, whether by production or, as we have learned, simply by mortgaging the future through deficit spending to maintain entitlements. All of these migrants can consume much more of that below-market production if they are ensconced in the rich Western countries than if they remained in their countries of origin. In this manner the gravy train keeps chugging along.

This is how we have embarked on the road to Elysium. Debt-funded consumption is combined with structurally low-wage, low-regulation, environmentally-unfriendly production. It is a massive engagement in transactions of decline which unchecked will lead to a situation in which the Elysium of science fiction will increasingly approach reality.