Take the blinders off

Feb. 1, 2007
What's $650 billion among friends? That's the amount of increased income the oil producers have received since 2002.

What's $650 billion among friends? That's the amount of increased income the “net” oil producers have received since 2002. And since most of them are relatively small exporters, more than $600 billion of that money went to just a few of our best friends.

I ask these countries the same thing I ask my college-student son: Where's all my money going? As it turns out, a significant amount is not going anywhere.

Most headlines rightly blame our trade deficit on the relatively recent run-up in oil prices. Yet evidence actually indicates that we've had a steady trade deficit even in times of oil price declines. It turns out that net oil revenues are funding our total deficit at a time when we sorely need the capital.

There are several major net oil importers in the world: China, Japan, Europe and the U.S. Why do we have to finance current account imbalances, while other importing countries don't?

For starters, we don't have the level of trade with the net oil exporters that they have. Consequently, we have to finance out net imports with debt rather than trade. And that can only get more expensive over time.

The U.S. has decided to maintain its current level of consumption and thus increase the debt level, which means future consumption will be down. That is really no different than the average household, which mortgages its home (with or without home equity loans), finances car payments, and does not immediately pay off revolving debt. In order for this family to maintain its standard of living, either its net income has to increase or the interest rates on its loans have to remain stable.

The same holds true for the biggest household on the planet, i.e., the U.S. government. For the debt to decrease, either the government's income has to increase or interest rates have to remain stable over decades. That assumes that the U.S. government is required to sustain its current spending patterns, which is analogous to an individual household maintaining its standard of living.

What history tells us, however, is that sooner or later the household has to come to grips with its debt burden. Our rich friends will no longer co-sign our debt to sustain our standard of living. In fact, one of our friends has declared that it is now our enemy.

Recently, the U.S. government's income has risen because the economy has grown and tax revenues have increased. Yet that has barely put a dent in our total outstanding debt.

We have several artificial barriers that impact our ability to decrease the federal deficit. First and foremost is the fact that government continues to increase spending. My household and my parents' household sure know how to hunker down and tighten our belts to meet any income/expense imbalance. In fact, the vast majority of U.S. households know how to do this. But the biggest household of all does not.

Second, we have placed many restrictions on how the net oil importers can spend their money in the U.S. Consequently, they have invested elsewhere and built economic ties, i.e., trade relationships, elsewhere. We're the only ones with our heads in the sand. If we were to open up our industries to foreign investment from these net oil importers, we would see foreign trade increase in our favor dramatically.

Finally, we've placed so many restrictions on where U.S. companies can do business overseas that we're actually helping foreign competition gain footholds and economies of scale that will hurt our chances of remaining competitive in the future.

Other than that, our elected officials have a hand on the pulse of the economy - which is getting fainter by the minute.

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