A cheaper dollar is not enough

My colleague Josh Bivens is right to call Christina Romer on her failure to note the importance of currency manipulation on the plight of U.S. manufacturing. But, he leaves us with the impression that the story ends there, and that a targeted manufacturing policy is simply a poor second-best reaction to the governing class’ refusal to deal with our overvalued dollar. It’s not. Even if Romer had acknowledged the currency problem, she still wouldn’t have been, as it were, on the money.

Romer dismisses the notion of “special treatment” of manufacturing (a euphemism for industrial policy – the policy that still dare not say its name), as a sentimental effort to turn back the tide of history, which conventional economics wisdom tells us has thrown American goods production into its trash heap. In the same news cycle, Larry Katz of Harvard tells the New York Times that an increase in manufacturing jobs is “implausible.”

But what is really implausible is the notion that America’s creditors will continue to finance our current account deficit forever. The mills of macroeconomic adjustment may grind slowly, but sooner or later—with or without a change in U.S. dollar policy—they will grind away the dollar’s inflated position in the world. Assuming an eventual global recovery, foreign investors will eventually find more profitable ways to invest their money (in their own economies, for example) than to keep lending it to American consumers at low rates and with the increasing risk that they will be paid back in devalued dollars.

At that point, the market will force the dollar down, making us more price competitive. But this will not be costless. Given that a large chunk of what we buy—including most of our oil—comes from abroad, the initial impact will be to raise the cost of living here, undercutting real incomes.

Moreover, time has not stood still. After 30 years of surrendering markets and off-shoring production, Americans no longer dominate the upper reaches of the global supply chains. The world is now full of competitors whose governments will use every possible policy tool to keep, and expand, their share of high value-added markets. So, in the absence of something similar here, our workers will be competing on the basis of cheaper labor costs.

It’s already happening. Two tier wages systems, in which younger workers get paid much less are now standard practice in many American factories. As Rich Trumka said to me a few months ago, “What makes you think that two-tiers could not turn to three?” The Obama administration plays up the General Electric decision to bring the production of a water heater back from China to a plant in Kentucky. What it plays down is that the hourly wage went from $20 to $13 per hour.

Some have criticized President Obama’s proposals as cynical election-year half-measures. They may be right. Still, it is, finally, a step in the right direction. Even with a cheaper dollar, laissez-faire domestic policy is not going to bring back the American Dream.