The U.S. could learn some lessons from 1946 Great Britain.
12:01 AM, Oct 17, 2009 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
Americans should be hoping that the Chinese will be kinder to us than we were to the Brits after World War II. Readers of a certain age will remember, and the few younger ones who study history will have learned what creditor Uncle Sam did to debtor John Bull when Britain sent John Maynard Keynes to Washington to negotiate borrow the odd billion from us. Britain had spent blood and treasure to beat the Nazis, and was hoping or a gift of $3 billion, a credit line of $5 billion, and other generosities. As Robert Skidelsky points out in his magnificent biography of Keynes, "The Americans had never accepted that they owed Britain a moral debt" for its disproportionately large sacrifices. Instead, President Truman, advised by communist spies such as Harry Dexter White, insisted on terms so onerous that the Britain was, in some views, permanently expelled from the first rank of economic powers for decades, until Margaret Thatcher decided that her government's job was definitely not merely to manage decline.
Fast forward to today, and the plunging dollar. The Obama administration may mouth support for a strong dollar, but markets aren't easily fooled, or if fooled, are not fooled for long. They know that administration policy is relying heavily on a depreciating currency. In the short run, the White House hopes that a combination of protectionism and a cheap dollar will reduce the flow of imports and increase the volume of exports. That, the theory is, will create jobs "right here in America" as the Wal-Marts of the country switch to domestic suppliers.
In the longer run, the administration knows that it will somehow have to repay the massive debts it is incurring as it attempts to stimulate the economy, throws another trillion at what it sees as an underperforming health care system, and prepares to burden the energy economy with billions, or even trillions, in new costs in the interests of satisfying the green lobby that it is doing something about greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, the Obama team could take a lesson from Argentina, which defaulted on its debts eight years ago and nevertheless is headed back into the market, to borrow money from lenders eager to increase their returns and afflicted with memory loss. P.T. Barnum, the great circus impresario, said, "There's a sucker born every minute," although it is not certain that he had international bankers in mind, since an annual sucker-birth rate of 525,600 might have to include more than leading bankers. Some regulators, perhaps.
But debt repudiation would be unbecoming a great power, much less one that hopes to maintain the dollar as a reserve currency. If indeed American any longer does. The administration's critics, among them Pulitzer Prize winning commentator Charles Krauthammer, believe the President wants to make America less of a hegemon and more of an ordinary nation, much like others in the international organizations of which Obama is so fond. That effort includes an increase in the U.S. contribution to the International Monetary Fund's ability to issue drawing rights, which the Russian, Chinese, and other regimes hostile to America want to see replace the dollar as the currency in which the world does business -- unless, of course, they find some way to have their own currencies become more acceptable in international trade.
But even the Chinese do not see the dollar's role being so diminished in the near- or medium-term future. Instead, they see themselves in the position that America was in vis-à-vis Britain in 1946. America is deeply in debt, and with the red ink cascading across the nation's books, digging itself deeper into debt every day. The Chinese, America's principal creditor, are worried that Obama and his successors will attempt to pay back the more-than-trillion dollars it owes China in wildly depreciated dollars. So it is making it known that it wants to see some plan coming out of the White House that will begin to reduce the deficit and, eventually the national debt.
No such plan exists. Obama, who styles himself a "transformational president", intends to keep the spending taps wide open. The old adage that if you owe your banker a few dollars he has you under his thumb, but if you owe him a huge sum you have him where you want him, is not true. Not if the Chinese are your creditor. So it should be no surprise that Obama is the first president to refuse to receive the Dalai Lama, despite the urgings of the louche celebrities who helped fund the President's election campaign. Or that America no longer presses the Chinese regime on human rights issues.