The $1.4 Trillion Question – James Fallows

In the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows writes about China’s controversial investment in Blackstone Group last year and China’s subsidizing of the American lifestyle:

The case is titillating in its personal detail, but it is also an unusually clear and personalized symptom of a deeper, less publicized, and potentially much more destructive tension in U.S.–China relations. It’s not just Stephen Schwarzman’s company that the laobaixing, the ordinary Chinese masses, have been subsidizing. It’s everyone in the United States.

Through the quarter-century in which China has been opening to world trade, Chinese leaders have deliberately held down living standards for their own people and propped them up in the United States. This is the real meaning of the vast trade surplus — $1.4 trillion and counting, going up by about $1 billion per day — that the Chinese government has mostly parked in U.S. Treasury notes. In effect, every person in the (rich) United States has over the past 10 years or so borrowed about $4,000 from someone in the (poor) People’s Republic of China. Like so many imbalances in economics, this one can’t go on indefinitely, and therefore won’t. But the way it ends — suddenly versus gradually, for predictable reasons versus during a panic — will make an enormous difference to the U.S. and Chinese economies over the next few years, to say nothing of bystanders in Europe and elsewhere. [Full text]

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