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America’s Trade Deficit Begins at Home

NEW HAVEN – Thanks to fear mongering on the US presidential campaign trail, the trade debate and its impact on American workers is being distorted at both ends of the political spectrum. From China-bashing on the right to the backlash against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on the left, politicians of both parties have mischaracterized foreign trade as America’s greatest economic threat.

In 2015, the United States had trade deficits with 101 countries – a multilateral trade deficit in the jargon of economics. But this cannot be pinned on one or two “bad actors,” as politicians invariably put it. Yes, China – everyone’s favorite scapegoat – accounts for the biggest portion of this imbalance. But the combined deficits of the other 100 countries are even larger.

What the candidates won’t tell the American people is that the trade deficit and the pressures it places on hard-pressed middle-class workers stem from problems made at home. In fact, the real reason the US has such a massive multilateral trade deficit is that Americans don’t save.

Total US saving – the sum total of the saving of families, businesses, and the government sector – amounted to just 2.6% of national income in the fourth quarter of 2015. That is a 0.6-percentage-point drop from a year earlier and less than half the 6.3% average that prevailed during the final three decades of the twentieth century.