American columnist David Brooks expressed the opinion in the New York Times a few days ago that America had to become “a producer economy, not a consumer economy,” saying it would take “a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.” One could call that a return to the traditional Protestant values of America’s founding fathers, none of whom ever paid his Visa bill with his MasterCard. While that may promote a little overblown Puritan sympathy, the reality is that many economists don’t necessarily agree. The fact that the United States – and we, who profited collaterally from it – lived too high on the hog for too long, is really the root cause of today’s economic woes, albeit not the sole cause.
President Obama said at the G-20 summit that there had to be a correction in this global trade imbalance. Which meant that the United States couldn’t continue to over-consume while the rest of the world was over-saving.
Unfortunately, the problem with that is this: if the American people truly found their way back to the puritanical financial habits of their ancestors and actually held off buying a new car (or a new house, or a new kitchen) until they had saved enough to pay for it, the result would be the most brutal depression the world has ever seen, and not just in the United States. Since 1980, consumption as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States grew over several decades from 62 to 70 percent. One can easily see the dramatic effect a drop in consumer spending would have on the GDP.
The growth was made possible mainly by a significant rise in private debt. Between 1966 and 2007, the ratio of private debt to GDP grew from 55 percent to an astounding 133 percent. That ratio has been noticeably shrinking of late, due to the credit crisis, but public debt has been rapidly and proportionally rising. In total, U.S. debt has not decreased at all and has actually been rising. There seems little chance, then, that there will be any reduction in “global imbalances” anytime soon. In addition, the United States continues to pile up debt of biblical proportions that will be serviced mainly by China.
The task of reducing America’s excessive credit purchases without killing off the global economy in the process promises to become the most difficult of all difficult economic exercises. That can only happen if other nations begin consuming more than they’re naturally accustomed to. And that’s a premise that holds very little promise of realization.
The United States basically finds itself in the same situation as a junkie who has no hope of surviving his debt addiction, nor the harsh withdrawal of going cold turkey without credit.