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Obama Is Making A Big Mistake In Saudi Arabia

President Obama is on his way to Saudi Arabia, and Secretary Geithner is done with his major initiative in China. In part, this is just the U.S. normalizing its relations with the rest of the world and rebuilding some basic diplomatic niceness. But it's also about reshaping--or not--the way the world's economy works after the crisis.

From all appearances, President Obama will ask the Saudis to continue their efforts to stabilize the oil market, including by bringing new production on stream, and the Saudis will offer--to the best of the abilities--to play exactly this role within OPEC. Of course Secretary Geithner just asked the Chinese to continue their efforts to stabilize the market for long Treasuries, including by investing their current account surplus in U.S. secureties, and the Chinese have agreed--with some pretend grumbling--to play this role.

It looks like adding up to a big mistake--just ask Mikhail Gorbachev.

You don't have to take a completely pro-Reagan view to agree that the U.S. boxed the Soviet Union into overinvesting in an unproductive rent-seeking sector (the military-industrial complex), which wasted a huge amount of productive resources and undermined the economy's broader innovative potential--as well as its ability to put basic consumer goods on the table. Even worse, when Gorbachev did try reform, the system proved so brittle and the capture of policy so complete that the whole empire collapsed in debt, inflation, and catastrophic tunneling (in turn leading to a new wave of oligarchs, etc).

If we continue to depend on "cheap enough" oil, that's dangerous enough in geopolitical terms. But if we run our economy so we finance our oil imports by borrowing heavily from the outside world (not all from China; the Middle East and Japan are also big providers of net savings), we are asking for trouble.

The collapse of the dollar is not necessarily imminent, and the temporary use of deficit spending makes senes as a way to get through this deep recession. But when exactly do we plan to wean ourselves off (a) the oil, and (b) the borrowing from abroad? This doesn't have to be done tomorrow, but it has to be done--unless it is somewhere written that the U.S. will stay powerful and solvent forever.

We should be committing ourselves to energy prices (and carbon prices) that rise over time, hence creating an incentive for innovation in fuel efficiency (and lower emissions) throughout the economy. The Saudi swing-producer role means that, if things go well, they keep pushing oil prices down below the pain point, thus limiting longer-term moves away from oil (and they are quite explicit about this as their goal). The Chinese swing-investor role means that, at best, long-term interest rates will remain low enough for us to feel like we can keep borrowing (you can draw your own conclusions on their true goals).

Show me the policies-in-place that bring down our external payments deficit, and explain the commitments that will really make this happen. Or even start the conversation in these terms, domestically and with our various kinds of allies overseas.

Just don't tell me that the financial sector will collapse if we make any moves in the right direction, e.g., cutting back on our current budget-breaking implicit subsidies to that enormous rent-seeking sector; we're on our way to doubling our debt/GDP ratio, from around 40% to near 80%, directly because of the way this sector has behaved. Remember the excessive power of particular sectors (and all their policymaking friends) consistently hampers sensible efforts to reform any economy. If that's too vague for you, look at how and why Gorbachev failed--and all the awful consequences.

There are people who attribute the entire subprime debacle to irresponsible borrowers. Personally, I would spread the blame more broadly, including lenders, the way the financial system has come to operate, and the way U.S. and European governments looked the other way--or supported the prevailing ideology--as a megabubble developed.

But it is true that someone has to step up and take responsibility any time you see a potential debt bubble developing. And for our current level of international indebtedness and where this is headed, who will now take responsibility? Or, if that's too complicated a question, let's try a simpler version: who will tell the President?

[Cross-posted at The Baseline Scenario.]

--Simon Johnson