Clyde Prestowitz in Boston Globe (01/26/05)
OH YES, IT CAN HAPPEN HERE
by Robert Kuttner
Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright (c) 2005, Globe Newspaper Company
January 26, 2005
"How did you go bankrupt?""Two Ways. Gradually, and then suddenly."
The Sun Also Rises
COUNTRIES GO broke gradually, by borrowing so much money that creditors
lose confidence in their ability to pay the debt back. Then, they go
broke suddenly as creditors stop lending.
This has happened to more than a dozen Third World nations, who had the
additional misfortune of having to borrow in dollars. As their own
currency lost the confidence of world markets, they lost value against
the dollar. This only increased their real debt burden. The optimists
say, "It can't happen here."
First, we're the people who print dollars. So if the dollar is losing
value, it just means the money that we owe the rest of the world is
getting cheaper. Lucky us.
Second, we enjoy a codependency with our creditors. For instance,
China, which keeps lending us money to finance our deficits, may be
accumulating dollar credits that are losing their real worth. But China
needs us to keep absorbing their products, so China will go right on
And third, the United States remains the anchor of the world economy.
So even though other nations may not like America's immense trade and
budget deficits, nobody is going to risk pushing the world into
depression by crashing the dollar.
That, as I say, is the optimistic view. Well, dream on.
Yesterday, the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, possibly the
last intellectually honest government agency in George Bush's
Washington, reported that our fiscal situation is even worse than
According to the CBO's latest "Budget and Economic Outlook," the
projected deficit for 2005 will be about $400 billion. The CBO
declares, politely but unmistakably, that it doesn't buy the Bush
administration's budgetary gimmickry of trying to keep anticipated
military outlays out of the official budget.
"The absence of further appropriations for activities in Iraq and
Afghanistan," CBO states, "masks a further deterioration in budget
projections over the (next) ten years."
Specifically, the deficit for the next decade is $504 billion worse than anticipated in CBO's previous estimate last September.
The agency goes on to warn that other challenges not currently itemized
in official administration projections, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and
Social Security, will only increase future deficits. And, of course, if
the Bush administration succeeds either in making permanent his major
tax reductions (most of which sunset after 10 years), or in adding $2
trillion of borrowing to privatize Social Security, the fiscal
situation would go from merely disastrous to catastrophic.
But back to our story, "It Can't Happen Here." America's deteriorating
fiscal situation, unfortunately, is not lost either on world money
markets or on the Federal Reserve. Although no world leader would
willfully plunge the world into depression, that's not how markets
work. Markets are purely self-interested.
Lately, markets, with good reason, have been betting against the
dollar. As the US trade deficit approaches a staggering 7 percent, it's
not clear how much longer foreign investors will keep investing in
dollars and dollar-securities, such as corporate stocks and government
As for the Chinese, Clyde Prestowitz of the Economic Strategy
Institute, formerly a senior trade negotiator in the Reagan
administration, offers the following scenario: In a future crisis
involving the tense China-Taiwan relationship, the Chinese ambassador
suggests to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that maybe the United
States would like to move its warships 500 miles away from Taiwan. Rice
demurs. The next day, the Bank of China sells a few -just a very few to
get our attention - US Treasury securities. Money markets reel.
Would the Chinese play such a risky game? They have their own
interests, geopolitical as well as economic. They are certainly not an
American pawn, less so with every passing year. Miscalculations have
happened in world economic relations before, and with calamitous
The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, is increasingly worried about
inflation, largely of the imported variety due to the weak dollar. The
Fed is steadily raising interest rates. With every quarter-point hike,
consumers pay more for mortgage and credit card loans, investors in
stocks become more wary, and the air goes out of the economy. Alan
Greenspan kept rates very low long enough to get George W. Bush
reelected. Now he is reverting to type.
The Bush administration is putting itself, and America's economic
future, in grave jeopardy. The only good news is that all this bad news
makes Social Security privatization, or permanent tax cuts for the
wealthy, less than an even bet.
ROBERT KUTTNER\Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.