China and the American Jobs Machine, by Robert Reich, Commentary, WSJ: President Barack Obama says he wants to “rebalance” the economic relationship between China and the U.S. as part of his plan to restart the American jobs machine. “We cannot go back,” he said in September, “to an era where the Chinese . . . just are selling everything to us, we’re taking out a bunch of credit-card debt or home equity loans, but we’re not selling anything to them.” He hopes that hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers will make up for the inability of American consumers to return to debt-binge spending.
This is wishful thinking. True, the Chinese market is huge and growing fast. … But in fact China is heading in the opposite direction of “rebalancing.” Its productive capacity keeps soaring, but Chinese consumers are taking home a shrinking proportion of the total economy. Last year, personal consumption in China amounted to only 35% of the Chinese economy; 10 years ago consumption was almost 50%. Capital investment, by contrast, rose to 44% from 35% over the decade. …
Chinese companies are plowing their rising profits back into more productive capacity—additional factories, more equipment, new technologies. China’s massive $600 billion stimulus package has been directed at further enlarging China’s productive capacity… So where will this productive capacity go if not to Chinese consumers? Net exports to other nations, especially the U.S. and Europe. …
The Chinese government also wants to create more jobs in China, and it will continue to rely on exports. Each year, tens of millions of poor Chinese pour into large cities from the countryside in pursuit of better-paying work. If they don’t find it, China risks riots and other upheaval. Massive disorder is one of the greatest risks facing China’s governing elite. That elite would much rather create export jobs, even at the cost of subsidizing foreign buyers, than allow the yuan to rise and thereby risk job shortages at home.
To this extent, China’s export policy is really a social policy, designed to maintain order. Despite the Obama administration’s entreaties, China will continue to peg the yuan to the dollar… This is costly to China, of course, but for the purposes of industrial and social policy, China figures the cost is worth it. …
While China’s currency policy is certainly a worthy topic for discussion, lately we are spending a lot of time pointing our fingers at others and blaming them for our problems rather than engaging in the more difficult task of getting our own house in order. I’m not saying that we should ignore things that unfairly disadvantage us, whatever those might be, just that a continued focus on external factors provides a convenient excuse to avoid going through the difficult changes needed to reform our own economy, an excuse that can be exploited by powerful interest groups opposed to needed change (though Reich at least touches on the US side of the equation in a part I left out).
Yes, China needs to change its currency policy, and the fact that it won’t or can’t change will probably lead to further economic imbalances, perhaps to dangerous levels, and cause increased political tension in the future. But I hope we don’t allow the financial industry and others wishing to deflect blame for the crisis and avoid stricter regulation to use the controversy over China’s currency policy to divert our attention elsewhere and alter the narrative about how we got into this mess.
Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.
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