Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that the deficit on international trade in goods and services was $42.9 billion in June.
Imported oil and subsidized imports from China account for nearly the entire trade gap and pose the most significant barriers to robust growth and jobs creation.
The economic recovery began five months after Barack Obama took office, and GDP growth has averaged 2.2 percent. In October 2009, unemployment peaked at 10 percent, but has fallen to 8.3 percent -- almost entirely because fewer Americans are seeking work.
Ronald Reagan inherited a similarly troubled economy with unemployment cresting at 10.8 early in his presidency. When he sought reelection, the economy was growing at 6.3 percent, unemployment was 7.3 percent and a rising percentage of Americans were seeking work.
Nowadays, economists agree the U.S. economy suffers from too little demand. Consumers are spending and taking on debt, but too many dollars go abroad to pay for Middle East oil and Chinese goods that do not return to buy U.S. exports. Businesses remain pessimistic and don’t hire.
Mr. Reagan encouraged the development of natural resources and endured much criticism from environmentalists and academics. Whereas Mr. Obama has talked repeatedly about developing the full range of energy resources, but has bent to their pressure and imposed counterproductive limits on oil production in the Gulf, off the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, and Alaska. Merely replacing domestic oil with imports does little to improve air quality or curb CO2 emissions.
These policies are premised on faulty assumptions about the immediate potential of electric cars and unconventional energy sources, and in combination, those make the United States much more dependent than necessary on imported oil.
Oil imports could be cut by two-thirds by boosting U.S. oil production to 10 million barrels a day, and immediately implementing more feasible solutions like the aggressive use of natural gas in fleet vehicles and more fuel efficient internal combustion engines.
To keep Chinese products artificially inexpensive on US store shelves, Beijing undervalues the yuan by 40 percent. It pirates US technology, subsidizes exports and imposes high tariffs on imports.
Mr. Reagan was a forceful advocate for US economic interests with the preeminent rivals of his day, like Japan. Whereas Mr. Obama, like President George W. Bush, has sought to alter Chinese policies through endless negotiations.
Beijing offers token gestures, knowing President Obama will not take the strong actions, advocated by economists across the ideological and political spectrum, to force China to abandon its mercantilist policies. It successfully cultivates political support for the Bush-Obama policy of appeasement among large U.S. multinationals and banks doing business and profiting from mercantilism in the Middle Kingdom.
Cutting the trade deficit in half, through domestic energy development and conservation, and forcing China’s hand on currency manipulation and other protectionist practices would increase GDP by about $500 billion a year and create at least 5 million jobs.
Longer term, large trade deficits shift resources from manufacturing and service activities that compete in global markets to domestically focused industries. The former undertake much more R&D and investments in human capital.
Cutting the trade deficit in half would raise U.S. economic growth by one to two percentage points. But for the trade deficits of the Bush and Obama years, US GDP would be 10 to 20 percent greater than it is today, per capita income as much as five to ten thousand dollars higher, and unemployment not much of a problem.
Peter Morici served as Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission from 1993 to 1995. He is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland.