The Chinese Bond Meme That Refuses to Die

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Robert Solow had an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday “emphasizing six facts about the debt that many Americans may not be aware of.” For example, half our debt is owned by foreigners; it’s owed in dollars, which is our own currency; and while this debt could spark inflation and soak up private savings that would otherwise go into useful investment, that’s not going to happen in a weak economy like the one we have now. CFR president Richard Haass tweets that Solow isn’t pessimistic enough about rising interest rates and the “ability of a hostile foreign govt to pressure US,” but Dan Drezner thinks that, if anything, Solow is painting too grim a picture:

As for Haass, I’m not exactly sure what “rising rates” he’s talking about, as just about any chart you can throw up shows historically low borrowing rates for the United States government. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury is exploiting this fact by locking in U.S. long-term debt at these rates. As for foreign governments pressuring the United States, the fear of foreign financial statecraft has been overly hyped by the foreign policy community. And by “overly hyped,” I mean “wildly, massively overblown.”

The bias in foreign policy circles and DC punditry is to bemoan staggering levels of U.S. debt. This bias does percolate down into the perceptions of ordinary Americans, which leads to wild misperceptions about the actual state of the U.S. economy and U.S. economic power. I’d like to see a lot more op-eds by Solow et al that puncture these myths more effectively.

This claim that China will be able to blackmail or extort America because of all the U.S. debt it owns is a zombie idea that just won’t die. The truth is that China’s holdings of U.S. treasuries give it no leverage to speak of; pose no danger to America; and China’s recent actions demonstrate pretty conclusively that they know this perfectly well. Hell, China’s share of U.S. debt has gone down for the past two years. This whole meme really needs to die.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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