You buy things till your wallet is empty. So you raid the savings account to buy more stuff. Then you get a loan, and buy more stuff. Another loan, another, you keep buying stuff… Finally you're selling off the tools you had used to make a living. That's where the country is now because of the huge imbalance in our trade relationships. We buy more from them than they buy from us and we have let this go on and on and on. This is the deficit we should be worried about.
Pick a national problem, and the odds are that our trade imbalance is aggravating it. Our trade deficits literally suck money out of the country. When looking up the numbers I had to double check, our annual trade deficits are so huge. In the chart below that first line under the dates represents $100 billion. Look at what happened in the late 90s, when we opened the China flodgates. (Click to enlarge):
In the 70's the trade balance dipped below zero because of oil, and the country responded with conservation and the beginning of the search for alternatives -- until Reagan. To make matters worse, Reagan preached "free trade" -- as in use cheap foreign labor to break American unions. (But Reagan also enforced rules against "dumping" and other trade violations.) The real break in our balance of trade clearly begins around the time that NAFTA and the World Trade Organization went into effect, and then went absolutely nuts after China was brought in. Between 2001 and 2009 we lost 1/3 of all of our manufacturing jobs, more than 50,000 factories, and entire industries. We drained trillions of dollars out of our economy.
Energy. The trade imbalance started with OPEC and the oil price shocks in 1970s, and oil imports since then. This is a huge problem but the beneficiaries of this trade imbalance fight to keep things the way they are. (By the way, next time you hear someone of FOX running down our country's green energy efforts, knocking the Chevy Volt or denying climate change, think abougt this: Fox's second-largest shareholder is a billionaire Saudi oil prince. Also, FYI, Koch brothers == oil.)
"Asymmetries." One-sided trade relationships are now draining money from our country at a dramatic rate. We are much more open to imports than many of our "trading partners" are. We buy from them, they don't buy from us -- and we just let this continue year after year.
"Strong" dollar policies, combined with currency manipulation by others. A strong dollar is great for Wall Street, but is terrible for manufacturers and producers. When the dollar is "strong" it means that goods made here cost more than goods made elsewhere. The dollar went way up in the early 1980s because of the borrowing following the Reagan tax cuts for the rich and the trade deficit went up along with it. Dollars had to be purchased to buy our bonds, creating a "demand" for them, which increased their "price," contributing significantly to the then-record U.S. trade deficits. Meanwhile, we let countries like China manipulate their currencies to make them "weak," which means goods made there cost must less in world markets.
Trade cheating. Many countries violate trade rules (like manipulating currency), which brings them a competitive advantage in world markets. We don't call them on it for various reasons, largely because powerful interest groups benefit from the cheating. When goods from elsewhere cost less than they should it undermines our own manufacturers and producers, but the lower prices enrich distributors, retailers, and others.
Here is the trap of our one-sided trade agreements: these "free-trade" agreements increase exports. The reason this is a trap and a problem is that they increase imports more. So, on the one hand the agreements create and enrich interest groups that push for continuation and expansion of the agreements, while on the other hand they increase trade deficits, which drain our economy.
Example: We opened up trade with China. China lets their imports grow, so we have some appearance of increasing sales to China, but they keep barriers while manipulating currency and subsidizing their companies, and their exports to us grow faster than their imports from us, which increases the imbalance. They can steadily reduce their import barriers and let their currency rise slowly, giving the appearance of moving toward open trade and providing what appear to be incentives to keep the relationship going, but by also increasing their exports they continue to drain us.
The Answer: Balance
We must balance our country's trade. Of course, to do that we must understand ourselves as a country again. Our competitors certainly do.
We're A Country. Deal With It.
Here's the important thing to understand, even if you think the idea of "countries" is out of date, and don't think of the United States as a country is important anymore: Others see themselves as countries and they organize their countries to win as countries. And you don't live in those countries. They see us - this geographic region we live in -- as a country, even if we do not, and they plan their efforts accordingly. They attack us as a country and you happen to live in the geographic region called a country that they are attacking. So as they seize the jobs and factories and industries from our country all of us who happen to live within the geographic borders that we refuse to call a country lose out economically, whether we believe we are part of this country or not. This means we have to respond as a country regardless of whether our ideology says we shouldn't. We are under economic attack as a country, so national government still matters as the only force capable of organizing a national response.
Our government must say that the amount coming in must match the amount going out. Period.
(Note, The Causes of the U.S. Trade Deficit, Robert A. Blecker, Ph.D., August 19, 1999 is a good read.)