Thursday, December 4, 2014


--> -->

So, President Obama thinks that anyone who questions the opaque Trans-Pacific Partnership is in effect arguing for perpetuating the “status quo.”   (See today’s Washington Post:   A while back, he charged critics of the TPP and its baby sister the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with complaining about issues that in his judgment had been settled twenty-five years ago.  Huh?

Projection is a common psychological defense mechanism:  attribute to others what you want to deny about yourself.  In this case, the administration and its big business allies are the ones who are perpetuating the status quo.  The special interests for which trade agreements are designed to work often benefit from their intricately crafted provisions.   However,  those provisions have little to do with either “free trade” or the national interest. 

Whereas Adam Smith argued that a nation as a whole (hence The Wealth of Nations) would be better off by ending perpetually unbalanced trade – the essence of mercantilism.  He surely would see through the unexamined assumption of modern day “free traders” who argue in effect that anything that leaves them better off serves the national interest.

Yet this blind spot is not peculiar to the current administration.  For decades the United States has failed to:

  • Counteract the spread of mercantilist practices that now distort 40 percent of the world economy, creating immense imbalances that threaten the continuation of the post-World War II economic system;
  • Address the growing discrepancy between the US and foreign tax regimes, handing to more than 150 countries a built-in two-way advantage in trade with this country;
  • Neutralize the rise of state-owned enterprises in international trade and finance, allowing those who have virtual immunity from market forces to gain a huge competitive advantage over our companies and our workers;
  • Offset the massive subsidies paid to induce American firms to offshore their headquarters, research facilities, production facilities, and components suppliers; and
  • Develop a coherent energy policy that capitalizes on home-grown supply and technology, leaving us dependent on foreign supply, complicating our national security calculations, and inexorably adding to our foreign debt.

For a generation, those issues have been ignored by our trade negotiators and our economic policymakers.  While successive administrations have hyped the benefits from China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and our “free trade” agreements with 26 other countries, here’s what’s been happening to the US economy:

  • Trade deficits continue at historically high levels.  Since our last annual surplus in 1975, we have incurred an unbroken string of 39 consecutive deficits totaling about $10 trillion dollars.  Seventy percent of that has occurred in just the past 13 years, just when expanded trade was supposed to be improving our trade performance and living standards!
  • Median household incomes have been falling as American workers have lost well paying jobs and benefits to foreign competitors.   Despite impressive productivity gains, the typical American worker is worse off today both in wage earnings and benefits.
  • Median household net worth has also suffered as falling incomes and rising cost of housing, medical care and education have curtailed the average family’s ability to save and invest.  Today half of American households have accumulated over their lifetimes a net worth of $81,000 or less – smaller than the annual bonus of some law associates or rookies at Wall Street financial companies.
  • Foreign debt, largely driven by the cumulation of annual trade deficits, has risen year by year to almost $17 trillion – about one year’s output for the entire American economy.

Each dollar of foreign debt is a claim on what Americans own or can squeeze out of our shrunken production base.  When the inevitable day of reckoning arrives, inflation will make up for any shortfall in available assets, goods and services.  Literally, our perennial trade deficits are not only a drain on our economy at present but also a threat to our prosperity, sovereignty and way of life in the future.

So, the status quo is the problem, but more of the same sort of trade agreements cannot be the solution.  We need a government able and willing to confront the problems that have burdened us for a long time.  The good news is that most of them can be addressed effectively and legally by actions within our control.  Then – and only then – broad regional trade agreements might make a lot more sense and might enjoy a lot more political support than they do now.  Instead of complaining about critics, those in power would be better advised to act in a determined, comprehensive way on the perennial problems that have gutted the prospects for prosperity for half the nation. 


Sunday, October 12, 2014


It pained me to read in today’s New York Times Sunday Business section a stinging critique of America’s retirement system.  A Dutch pension specialist is quoted:  “The rest of the world sort of laughs at the United States – how can a great country get so many things wrong?”

Retirement security is of course a big issue for boomers and their children.  The fortunate upper echelon has plenty of income and assets.  As a country, however, our household savings rate is stuck below two percent, one-fifth of the rate in Germany and one-fourth that in Poland.  These days half the country struggles with low and stagnant earnings: when corrected for inflation, the median household income still has not recovered to the 2007 level.  Half the country’s households have a net worth of $81,000 or less, an amazingly modest level down 40 percent from the 2007 peak.    No savings, falling incomes and declining net worth are a recipe for social and economic disaster, yet no coherent national response has been forthcoming from elected officials.

My distress is all the greater because the same scornful question can be raised with regard to many other areas of American life.  Once the world’s greatest creditor, we are now the biggest debtor in history.  We have a unbroken string of trade deficits since 1976, adding up to almost $10 trillion dollars.  Our industries have not expanded plant and equipment for a decade or more.  Standards of performance, accountability and ethics are slipping in every sector, it seems.   Our politics are gridlocked.  Generation-old problems go unaddressed while elected officials posture and squabble.  Our infrastructure is increasingly antiquated and second-class.  Our tax system is out of step with the rest of the world, providing scant reward for the added saving, investing, producing and exporting that we need on a sustained basis. 

We govern ourselves as if neither foreign competition nor shared prosperity matter.  We think of ourselves as exceptional.  In practice, we lack purpose and vitality and are weak and irresolute.  The world has ample reason to laugh at us.  But America’s fecklessness is no laughing matter.

During an all-night negotiating session in Geneva years ago, a veteran Asian ambassador said to me:  “America is great because America is good.”  For years, I recalled those words as a reflection of the respect and gratitude that America deserved for its principled, far-sighted and dedicated leadership and the dynamism and high standards of its people.

With the benefit of 30 years’ additional experience, I would amend the ambassador’s statement:  America is great when America is good.  These days, it falls way short of what it could be, what average Americans want it to be, and what the rest of the world needs it to be. 

Monday, May 27, 2013


Every Saturday evening, Garrison Keillor regales his NPR audience with tales from his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, the “little town that time forgot.”  In that mythical place on the edge of the prairie, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

In the real and truly woebegone – i.e. of an inferior or deplorable condition – world of monetary affairs, central bankers and their finance ministry masters are engaged in a global race to the bottom.  It seems that each country feels entitled to grow at the expense of its trading partners.  Each wants a weaker currency.  Each wants a trade surplus.  Each feels above average; perhaps more accurately each feels below average.

But weaker has no meaning without stronger, nor exports without imports, nor surplus without deficit.

If time forgot Lake Wobegon, the monetary authorities seem to have forgotten the lessons of our not so distant history.  The currency wars of the 1930s were very bit as destructive as the tariff wars that are universally recognized as a major contributing cause of the global Great Depression and the ensuring world war.  Tariff wars have been effectively inhibited by the GATT/WTO system, but the monetary “system” – if that term can be fairly applied to the chaos that now reigns – lacks clear rules and effective enforcement mechanisms.  So, the destructive dynamic of competitive currency depreciation rumbles on.

History and logic tell us that a race to the bottom always ends in a crash.  Some might lose less than others, but everyone loses in the end.  There is no salvation for a single nation.  Either we solve the problem together, or market forces will chasten us all.  Apparently, it takes an exceptional individual or an exceptional government to put a stop to this real-world folly.  Where are such people now that we need them?

May 27, 2013

Saturday, September 3, 2011


In an item entitled “American Idiocracy,” the columnist known as Schumpeter wrote in The Economist dated August 13: “American politicians are intent, not on improving their country’s competitiveness, but on gouging each other’s eyes out.” That apt phrase explains the universally low regard in which Americans hold both parties, both houses of Congress and the White House. However well founded, popular disdain seems to have done little to tame the “blame game” in Washington.

Perhaps if elected officials reflected on the law firms and other business partnerships many of them participated in during their time in the real world outside the Capital Beltway, they might see why a relatively lower disapproval rating is quite beside the point. Partnerships are formed to enable two or parties to cooperate pursue mutually beneficial ends. They may be competitors, vying for the same client. They may also be competitors for promotions, prestigious office space, and a bigger share of the profits when that time of year comes. Nonetheless, they are committed to work together to promote their agreed objectives.

Why not consider government as a partnership aimed at the constitutional objectives of forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity? Those are the purposes for which the people of the United States established this constitutional government. Why not consider all elected officials to serve as general partners in that great and noble partnership? As such, why not hold them jointly and severally liable for the failures of the partnership?

To the extent that our union is less perfect, that injustice prevails, that there is domestic unrest, that the nation has failed to detect and deter threats to its safety, that the welfare of the country as a whole has not been promoted, and the blessings of liberty are unsecured – to the extent we have failed the constitutional purposes of the United States of America – then everyone involved should expect to be held fully accountable. Any partnership – a law or real estate firm, a manufacturing enterprise, a baseball team – performing as poorly as the U.S. government has been would have taken steps to reform its way of doing business, revise its business strategy, and revamp its executive corps.

It is folly to speak of a recession, a budget deficit, or a war as “Obama’s” or “Bush’s.” When the country as a whole is failing, our government as a whole is failing. All elected officials ought to be held accountable for that. No one has done enough to avert the mess our nation finds itself in. No one has even now offered a clear, comprehensive and credible plan to address the structural as well as the cyclical aspects of our economic woes. Government officials ought to be jointly and severally liable and need to find new ways to cooperate to promote the national interest – the general welfare – with diligence, dedication and a decent respect for the opinions of their partners.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Electric Hedge

New cars and new technology command hefty price premiums. To the chagrin of green-but-not-gold revolutionaries, the groundbreaking Leaf and Volt are necessarily new on both fronts for the time being. Nissan’s all-electric (EV) Leaf topped the U.S. News & World Report’s “upscale” small car list this year; it carries a $32,780 starting price tag. GM’s extended-range hybrid (PHEV) Chevy Volt was voted North American Car of the Year and is priced at $40,000. Toyota’s latest model of the hybrid Prius costs a bit more than half the latter amount, while comparable conventional vehicles can sell for less than half the price of their EV and PHEV counterparts. The Leaf and Volt may hold great appeal and long waiting lists, but in these economically challenging times, do they make any sense other than to make an ideological statement? Why pay the upfront premium?

Electric and extended-range hybrid vehicles will give you sticker shock, but they will also save you money down the road and protect you from the shock of higher oil prices. First, while their upfront cost is higher, electric vehicles have hugely lower operating costs. Assuming the current national average: you drive 12,000 miles per year, own your car for the average 6 years, and pay $0.11/kWh for electricity and $3.85/gallon for gasoline. The lifetime cost of a Leaf you buy today, including financing costs and federal subsidies, will be $1,841 lower than the cost of a Nissan Altima. And the primary reason for the cost difference is the $7,910 reduction in lifetime fuel costs. If you have range anxiety and/or need a vehicle that can drive for more than 100 miles at a stretch, then the Volt may be a better match. It will cost $8,315 less to operate than the Chevy Impala, but will also take 9 years of ownership to compensate for the difference in upfront costs.

Leaf and Volt Cost Comparisons Under Current Conditions


Nissan Leaf

Nissan Altima

Chevy Volt

Chevy Impala


$ 32,780

$ 20,950

$ 40,000

$ 23,790


$ 31,815

$ 33,656

$ 40,490

$ 37,716

Lifetime Fuel

$ 1,716


$ 2,110

$ 10,428

Figures calculated using the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Project Get Ready calculator

The chart above does not include lower maintenance costs. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that EVs incur half the costs of their conventional counterparts: EVs do not need oil and filter changes, spark plug replacements, and timing chain adjustments; brakes last twice as long due to the regenerative braking mechanism.

Granted, Leaf and Volt purchasers would not come close to breaking even under current cost conditions but for the $7,500 federal tax break. Fleet operators, by contrast, can break even more quickly due to economies of scale, longer ownership, higher and highly predictable utilization rates, and lower (commercial and industrial) electricity rates. If a sizeable fraction of the over 16 million fleet vehicles moved towards electrification, the market would be large enough for battery and other component costs to significantly fall and boost EV and PHEV price competitiveness for individual consumers.

In the meantime, another factor could quickly tip the scale in favor of electric vehicles: higher oil prices. If you believe that within the next decade oil prices are likely to gradually or sharply, then purchasing an EV or PHEV is your personal hedge against oil prices. If oil prices in the US rose to European levels of $8/gallon, the lifetime fuel costs of the Altima and Impala would almost equal the cost of the vehicle itself. The Leaf’s lifetime cost would shrink to $12,217 less than the Altima’s cost, and the Volt, to $7,926 less than the Impala. No subsidies needed.

Leaf and Volt Cost Comparisons Under High Oil Prices


Nissan Leaf

Nissan Altima

Chevy Volt

Chevy Impala


$ 31,815

$ 44,032

$ 41,030

$ 48,956

Lifetime Fuel

$ 1,716


$ 2,649

$ 21,669

Furthermore, electric vehicles empower you to hedge against energy insecurity in general. Oil dependence puts you at the mercy of global supply disruptions you cannot foresee or control, whereas electricity can be domesticated. If you are not satisfied with the grid’s reliability, the price or electricity, or your utility’s carbon footprint, you can always produce your own by installing a geothermal system or solar panels in your home. And in the event of an electric supply shock, you can also use your car’s battery as a back-up generator.

Given that the Leaf and Volt have earned high plaudits, the federal and many state governments are offering alternative fuel vehicle tax credits, auto manufacturers are extending highly favorable financing terms, and oil prices are rising, it makes sense to consider an EV or PHEV if you are in the market for a new car. It’s not too early to start thinking about an electric hedge.

By Carolyn Amon

Friday, May 6, 2011


The initial reaction of the stock market to today’s employment report was quite positive. Certainly, the mood was brightened by yesterday’s sharp correction in petroleum prices, and we all know not to make too much of a single month’s data. So, let’s not gloat over this accomplishment, either.

In fact, I am more disturbed than heartened by the news that the American economy added a higher than expected 244,000 non-farm jobs in April. My caution isn’t based solely on the increase in the unemployment rate to 9.0 percent, up two tenths of a point over March. That’s disturbing enough, but consider the rest of the relevant figures:

· Manufacturing jobs increased by only 29,000. By contrast, retail trade jobs grew by 57,100, almost double the production jobs. What does this say about the progress we’re making as a country to shift away from consumption-led growth?

· Government jobs actually shrank, thanks mostly to the loss of 22,000 positions in state and local government, further shrinking the revenue base for the same governments that let the workers go. As budget nooses tighten all across this country, the loss of public sector jobs could be enough to choke off the fitful recovery.

· The Department of Labor reported separately that the rate of new unemployment claims exceeded 1.7 million in April (the 4-week rolling average of 431,250 times four). That means that, roughly speaking, the economy had to produce a gross increase of upwards of two million jobs in order to achieve the net increase of 244,000. That’s an impressive performance for a single month, yet the unemployment rate actually rose nevertheless. There’s a lot more restructuring going on than real growth.

· Looked at another way, the economy would have to produce 360,00 net new jobs for each of the next 36 months to bring the unemployment rate down to a still high six percent. Every time a month falls short – April did so by 116,000 jobs – the bar is raised for the remaining months till March 2014. We’re falling behind, not progressing.

· Worse yet, our aim can’t simply be to reduce the employment statistics. All jobs are not created equal. Just ask the 8.6 million Americans involuntarily working at part-time positions – with reduced pay and low or no benefits.

As a country, we have our work cut out for us. It’s not enough to reduce budget deficits; in fact in the short run that will only make the employment and revenue problem worse. It’s not enough to aim merely to reduce the “jobs deficit.” That is a symptom, not a cause of what ails us. Instead, we must address the trade deficit itself. That means investing and producing more in the United States, importing less, and exporting more. Nothing less will be enough to address the jobs deficit.

Friday, December 3, 2010


These are discouraging days for anyone seriously concerned about the future of our country. In the aftermath of last month’s electoral upheaval, both parties seem hell-bent on misinterpreting the message from the people – those that voted and the many that didn’t. The fact is that most Americans failed to support either party – and with good reason.

On the one side, we hear the mind-numbing mantra of “American exceptionalism.” We are so special a people, this view seems to presume, that we can continue to mismanage our economy, neglect our needs, and ignore our foreign competitors without suffering the consequences. All we must do is ensure no tax increases -- especially on those most able to pay -- and to starve the federal beast. Exceptionalism is the ideology of the privileged, but its appeal traps many more citizens in the 51st state, the State of Denial, far from the realities of a global economy and the rise of state capitalism.

On the other, we are offered, according to Eliot Spitzer, “mush.” Democrats have no coherent message and thus fall back on “mushy” calls for more economic stimulus and patching the gaping holes in the social safety net. But where are the good jobs to come from? Green technology? Well, come with me to visit China sometime and I’ll show you what a commitment to green technology looks like and what kind of resources it entails. The only competitions in which mush is useful are Iditarod and the race to the bottom. It’s no way to win elections nor to motivate a nation.

Don’t get me wrong. I love this country and thank God every day that when they left Germany my father and my grandfather decided to come here, not South America. I believe in the greatness of our country and was privileged to represent it for 17 years as a diplomat and a trade negotiator. I believe, as one of my Korean friends told me in the middle of an all-night haggling session in Geneva that “America is great because America is good.”

Just for those reasons, I sympathize with the objectives of living within our means, ensuring a sound dollar, and maintaining an open and fair trading system. At the same time, I recognize the need for any civilized society to educate the young, retrain the older, provide decent housing and health care for all, care for the needy, and ensure an investment climate that generates good paying jobs for all those willing to work.

But as a country we have to escape this debate over “exceptional mush.” Our problems are greater than this petty partisan debate presumes. They are more difficult and more urgent, but we hardly speak of them.

Perhaps we can learn a lesson or two while watching this weekend’s football action. We already know that the better team does not always win. It’s possible for a less talented team to beat a more talented one, for an injury-riddled line up to best a healthy one, for a team on a losing streak to whip the hottest team in the league. That’s why we bother to watch.

It might be good to contemplate how the unexpected can happen. Sometimes it’s a lucky bounce of the ball, a mental blunder, or a bad call from the ref. Most times, however, it’s preparation. Football coaching staffs work almost 24/7 to devise elaborate game plans to capitalize on their team’s strengths, exploit the other team’s weaknesses, and produce victories even when not blessed by the odds makers.

On a national level, the steps to a winning game plan are pretty clear:

  • Establish a winning vision of a productive, wealth creating, financially self-reliant country.
  • Agree on overarching strategic objectives to save, invest, and produce in this country and balance our trade and current accounts.
  • Stop foreign currency subsidies.
  • Reform our tax system to rely more on consumption taxes that reward savings, domestic production, and exports and less on income taxation.
  • Expense investment in new plant and equipment to unlock the trillions of dollars of cash that large corporations are sitting on and to promote the expansion of domestic energy production without undue political interference with market forces.
  • Support innovation and its application in this country.
  • Establish a national bank for infrastructure and energy conversion to provide reliable, long-term financing to meet our needs in transportation, communication and energy distribution.
  • Revise our trade policy to reflect the Reagan formula of reciprocity: “free and fair trade with free and fair traders.”

There are many details to be hammered out legislatively and by regulation, of course. But the starting point is a vision. My friend Pat Mulloy likes to quote the book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people will perish.” Without a vision, the American people are losing. It’s time to work as diligently, as creatively and as urgently as an NFL staff to get a new game plan for America. The whole word is watching.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


November 11, 2010

How can we hope for any meaningful agreement to rebalance the lop-sided international trade system when heads of state and talking heads, finance ministers and financial gurus condemn deficit countries (i.e. the USA) in terms that ought to be reserved for surplus countries (China in particular)? One key to success at this week’s G-20 summit – and any future endeavor of this sort – is to recognize the fundamental difference in the significance and legal status of weak or weaker currencies.

On the one hand, some countries – China and others today, Japan for a long time in the past –systematically intervene in foreign exchange markets in a way that produces and perpetuates massive imbalances. The evidence of such policies lies in the huge excess foreign currency reserves and persistent trade surpluses. (China acknowledged a monthly surplus with the world of $27.1 billion in October, the second highest level this year. The result is yet another record level for China’s official reserves.)

Such behavior is inconsistent with IMF Article IV, which obligates members not to manipulate exchange rates in ways that prevent the adjustment of unbalanced trade flows and international payments or produce a competitive advantage. The logic is clear: when countries run big surpluses, the exchange rate should be allowed to strengthen so as to reduce the imbalances. Not to do so is a violation of Article IV and a shortsighted assault on the very international trading system that enabled export-oriented countries to grow so successfully. China has not done so.

On the other hand, the United States at long last is changing macroeconomic policies in ways that will, if market forces are allowed to work, produce a weaker dollar for a period of time. At the same time, Americans – individuals and businesses – are deleveraging and substantially increasing their savings. Banks have greatly strengthened their balance sheets and tightened the undisciplined credit expansion of the last decade. Interest rates have been held close to zero. Together, those steps should work to reduce the imbalances that burden the international system. The logic of Article IV also applies: when a country runs persistent trade and current account deficits, its exchange rate should weaken. American policy — which consists of much more than just a weaker dollar -- upholds Article IV and reinforces the flexibility of the international system in the face of massive imbalances.

The contrast between China’s perpetual surplus machine and the United States' self-corrective medicine is as plain as apples and oranges, illegal and legal, destructive and constructive. Those who cry out in horror that the industrial countries shouldn’t attempt to increase their exports fail to understand how markets work and make a mockery of the system from which export-oriented countries have hugely benefitted.

There is no perfect level for exchange rates, interest rates, money supplies, trade balances or current account balances. They must be allowed to rise and fall as necessary to maintain the overall stability of the system. To paraphrase Lord Keynes: “When circumstances change, our policies change. What do you do?” That’s the essence of Article IV. Those who insist on their right to run perpetual surpluses or who want to condemn the US to run perpetual deficits need a remedial course in economics. Without a better understanding of this fundamental economic truth, there is little hope for any lasting positive result from the G-20, now or ever.

Charles Blum


November 5, 2010

This week’s election results – especially the sweeping Republican gains in the House of Representatives and governorships across the country – will be analyzed for years to come. Many observers attribute the Republican tsunami to widespread anger with the Obama/Pelosi agenda. In particular, health care and cap and trade legislation are often singled out. Yet health care divides the American public pretty evenly between those who want to repeal Obamacare and those who like it and even want it to go farther. Cap and trade, of course, died in the Senate and may not revived soon, if ever. It has not adversely affected anyone’s household or corporate budget.

Others single out the stimulus measures as the cause of the Democrats’ debacle. Exit polls confirm that voters divided evenly between those who thought the stimulus measures – some of which are still to materialize -- had helped the economy, those who believed it had hurt the economy, and those who felt that it had made no difference.

Voting decisions are complex, of course, and I’m sure there is some validity to all these factors and many more. My own take is a bit different, however. Consider the following answers to three questions reported by the Wall Street Journal on November 3:

• When asked which issue was the most important in determining their vote, 62 percent responded the economy. Health care was a distant second at 18 percent health care, followed by immigration at 8 percent.
• When asked who was to blame for the poor economy, 35 percent answered Wall Street, 30 percent George W. Bush, and only 23 percent Barack Obama.
• Those voters living in a household that had experienced unemployment voted Democrat by a relatively slim 51-48 percent margin.

These answers are not surprising. They suggest that voters, while not holding the Obama administration principally responsible for the economic mess we’re in, do hold it mainly accountable for failing to provide a strategy for getting out of it. Throwing more stimulus money around the economy helter-skelter is not seen as the answer. The perceived added cost of health care and energy is similarly rejected as a response to our economic woes, as some Democrats tried to portray their health and environmental reforms.

Rather than angry, voters seem to me anxious. Rather than “frustrated with the pace of our economic recovery,” as Obama put it the morning after, they are fearful that government hasn’t got a clue about how to change the structure and functioning of our economy so that we can resume the growth of investment, jobs and income on a sound basis without endless borrowing from foreign creditors.

This election was, sadly enough, too much about the past. Democrats lost in part because they failed to produce a viable economic strategy; Republicans won despite their failure to produce one of their own. Together, the parties demonstrated that it is difficult and dangerous to move forward while gazing intently into the rear-view mirror. Both parties need to do better – and soon – so that America can do better.

Charles Blum

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Multitasking in individuals is controversial. Some people glory in their professed ability to juggle multiple chores simultaneously. Others deny that anyone can do full justice to two things at once, much less three or four. Whatever the truth, a more mindful approach to life’s problems can be more fulfilling and less stressful for individuals. As Peter Drucker advised: Do one thing at a time, and do first things first.

In political life, though, multitasking is the only approach to solving complex problems. There are few, if any, silver bullets. Simple measures hardly ever suffice to resolve multidimensional problems. Instead, the challenge for strategists is to organize different approaches into a coherent, effective solution – even if they appear on the surface to be contradictory or even incompatible.

The raging debate over currency misalignment is a case in point. Some advise that the problem is multilateral and must be dealt with by and through multilateral institutions. Others stress the bilateral dimension of the problem and focus on how the United States can gin up enough pressure to persuade recalcitrants such as China to conform with the multilaterally agreed rules they violate. Still others insist that the US must rely on steps within its own power. Of those, some are ready to take any measure – say an across-the-board import tariff – regardless of its legal defensibility or the economic and political consequences. Another faction, to which I have always belonged, insists that the US must stick to the legal high ground, enforcing its legitimate rights under the WTO as the most effective way to resolve the problem without setting off a trade war. My experience as a trade negotiator tells me that the application of countervailing duties to counteract currency subsidies when they cause injury to a particular industry is the starting point for an effective strategy.

These three dimensions of action are not as contradictory as some would have it. Rather, they are complementary – three sides to a stable triangle of policy. In the end, what’s needed is reform of multilateral institutions and enforcement mechanisms that clearly have failed over the past decade. A step in that direction would be one or more bilateral understandings that ease the immediate imbalances imperiling the US and the global economy. Legal action under our WTO-consistent trade laws is the only way to bring some of the key countries to the negotiating table.

Unilateral action is the only way to get the process started. Bilateral agreements are the only way to make substantial progress over the medium term. Multilateral reform is the only solution over the longer run. One element without the other two is unlikely to succeed; all three together constitute an intelligent multitasking strategy.

Secretary Geithner opened the door this week to collaboration between the administration and the Congress on the vexatious currency problem. If they will conceive their strategy in these terms, there is a good chance of success. It’s a truly global issue, so the whole world will be watching.

Charles Blum