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Will U.S. Policymakers Repeat Mistakes of the 1970s?

Judith Stein

A little over 30 years ago, American economic policymakers were faced with the choice of fighting unemployment or fighting inflation.  Led by the Federal Reserve, which pushed interest rates to new heights, they opted for the latter and, in the process, wrecked America's manufacturing sector.

Today, thanks, in part, to the Simpson-Bowles Commission on Deficit Reduction, which hijacked the conversation about reviving the economy, policy makers are being asked to make a similar choice; this time between reducing unemployment and shrinking federal deficits.  Will they learn from past mistakes?    

The Fed's approach to fighting inflation in the late 1970s -- sky-high interest rates -- was the worst strategy for the long-term well being of the U.S. economy.   In fact, it exacerbated inflation: The Fed's governors acknowledged this in minutes of Fed Open Market Committee meetings.    

Ultimately, this led to the recession of the early 1980s, which briefly pushed unemployment to double-digit levels and put the burden of the recovery on the backs of workers.     

This extreme austerity wasn't necessary.  Other countries confronted with inflation were able to limit the damage to their economies.  It may have taken longer to reduce inflation, but eventually it would have occurred as the principle causes -- rising oil and food prices and high interest rates -- receded.    

Instead, high interest rates attracted an inflow of money into the United States.  This strengthened the dollar relative to other currencies, hurting U.S. exports while making imported products less costly for U.S. consumers.  Coupled with policies promoting free trade, this hobbled manufacturing and caused widespread layoffs among blue-collar workers.    

The U.S. trade deficit today stands at more than three percent of gross domestic product.  Eliminating it would yield significant economic expansion.  However, a strategy focused on deficit reduction would, once again, mean that workers would pay.  This time, however, the recovery would be weaker because the avenues for growth are meager.


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When U.S. durable goods manufacturing went into decline in the 1980s, capital shifted into other sectors such as finance, housing and defense, where it could be used more productively.  While the boom on Wall Street produced greater economic inequality, it did maintain stability until around 2007, when the housing bubble burst and the finance-based economy showed it could not sustain itself.    

Today, education and healthcare are among the few sectors generating economic growth, but they cannot reduce the trade balance.  Only making more of the things we use and import -- capital goods, autos, computers, appliances -- can do that.     

The United States needs to foster a manufacturing renaissance.  The U.S. still is the world's leading manufacturer, measured by value.    Steel, aluminum, and other primary metal industries employ three times as many people as those engaged in renewable energy.   These are not your grandfather's steel mills, but modern high-end companies that operate on the technological frontier.  But since 2002, the U.S. has run a deficit in the advanced technology trade.     

Industrial leaders such as General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and former Intel Chairman Andrew Grove have warned that without manufacturing, restoring the nation's economic health will be impossible.   Unions have expressed willingness to work with management to produce mutually shared gains, similar to those experienced from the end of World War II until the mid 1970s.     

To revive America's manufacturing leadership, government may have to ignore free trade purists, employ "Buy America" provisions, cheaper currency, target worker training, and levy taxes that encourage production, not simply increase the dollars going to individuals.  These are the tools that modern states -- most obviously China, but Germany, France and Japan, too -- use to shape their economies.  Everyone does it but the United States.    

It requires presidential leadership.  Is Barack Obama up to the task?  Instead of investing in the economy, he chose a stimulus of tax cuts that will probably increase GDP from 2.4 percent to three percent next year, but will also be diluted because some portion will be spent on foreign-made goods.  The newest stimulus will not produce the industrial renaissance, but it will increase the budget deficit.

Then, President Obama will be confronted with huge political pressure to put deficit reduction ahead of job creation.  America could wind up with an economy that mirrors New York City: a sliver of highly-paid professionals at the top and everyone else working at low-end jobs in the service economy.  The program won't revive the middle class and it won't be sustainable, unless we are willing to accept eight, nine or even ten percent unemployment as the new normal.

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Dr. Judith Stein, Professor of History at The City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of "Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies."

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