Economy

Will the 'Dollar Wars' Kill What's Left of the American Dream?

Countries yoked to America's currency, and therefore its cratering empire, want to kick the dollar to the curb. And that's bad news for the U.S.

Here's a terrible joke: An elderly man walks into a bar and says, "I got good news and I got bad news."

"What's the good news?" the bartender asks.

"I stayed out of the stock market, so my retirement dollars are safe."

"What's the bad news?"

"They're dollars." 

OK, I said it was a terrible joke. But that may be what the dollar is becoming, now that the critical mass of wartime spending, rampant consumption, hyper-real finance  and environmental collapse has hit the fan.

The hangover from the last three presidential terms, but especially the last two, has taken the American economy down the rabbit hole, with the international monetary system begging for mercy while hitched to its off-the-ralls crazy train. But the ride has stopped, and some countries yoked to America's currency, and therefore its cratering empire, don't want to get back on. 

Namely, Brazil, Russia, India and China, loosely termed BRIC by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill, who is not alone in predicting the four countries' ascendant power, as the United States and the Eurozone fade into the 20th century.

With Brazil and Russia lording over a large share of what's left of the planet's natural gas and oil, and China and India providing a titanic labor force that rivals the intelligence, productivity and regimentation of workers anywhere outside their borders, BRIC is in the house, big time. And it wants a say in what's going on, as Marvin Gaye sang.

What's going on is that the dollar, to which the majority of the planet's economies and currencies are now reliant, has us all by the proverbial balls, and BRIC is screaming about it in the press. Something has to give, it's saying, and that thing is the dollar

"There is a lot of political and economic posturing involved," Rachel Zimeba, lead analyst at economist Nouriel Roubini's RGE Monitor, explained to AlterNet. "But I think there is substance to it. China has been trying, relatively unsuccessfully, to diversify for a couple of years, which has conflicted with its desire to have undervalued exports. Same thing has happened to countries in the Middle East, which are pegged to the dollar. And we're going to see even more pressure to diversify from these countries to reduce the share of their [dollar] assets.

"They see that the U.S. has a rising debt burden and record financing needs. Over time, they are worried that inflation and a weaker dollar will reduce the value of those assets." 

They should be worried. Since the Bush administration took office, the dollar has lost 33 percent of its value. And since the Bushies left office, the dollar has been on autopilot, hovering beneath the pound and euro and jockeying for position with the Canadian dollar for the bronze medal in underperforming currencies, losing or gaining altitude every time a politician from Russia or China slams or praises it in the press. Like the American economy itself, the Humpty Dumpty dollar is wobbling on the fence, hoping reality doesn't hop along and give it a shove. 

The good news? It could land softly. 

"This is not an overnight thing," Ziemba added. "Same thing goes for these countries' attempts to turn their own currencies into transactional and reserve currencies." 

That's reassuring, especially to what's left of those who still have a lot of dollars, as the American unemployment rate rises to levels nearly unseen since World War II. But once you wormhole a bit further into the future, the dollar's fate is much more murky. 

"The debate between the inflationists and deflationists is red-hot these days, as the U.S. financial system continues to wobble and the 'real' economy of goods and services staggers," explained Jim Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, World Made By Hand and the riotously acerbic column "Clusterfuck Nation."  "The fate of the dollar in the short-term depends on which way this really goes. But in the long term, both sides say the dollar is toast." 

Helping push America off the debt-soaked cliff it built for itself by hitching its future to hyper-real derivatives and unsustainable deregulation and development is beginning to look less like sacrilege and more like prudent international monetary policy. Whereas in the past, China and Russia's public protestations about the hegemonic corruption of the American empire would have been shooed away like jealous flies, now more countries are joining in the anti-American chorus, even as they shake President Barack Obama's hand and hope openly for a kindler, gentler global village.

What's going on behind the scenes is anybody's guess. But it's probably a good guess that more than a few long knives have been unsheathed.  

"Geopolitically, I suspect there is whispered consensus between our various partners and rivals that the American situation is pretty hopeless,"  Kunstler cracked, "and that they would now all more or less benefit from the diminishment of U.S. power across the board. The Chinese, for instance, must know that we will never again ramp up the orgy of credit spending. Why keep throwing away their wealth to keep us consuming?"   

It's a good question. One of the BRIC members' solutions to the conundrum is to spend more time on their own currencies, as well as those of the beleaguered International Monetary Fund, which has its own currency, called special drawing rights. The SDRs are pegged to a currency basket, containing the U.S dollar, the euro, the yen and the U.K. pound sterling. In other words, the currencies of the 20th century's superpowers.  

BRIC, the purported superpowers of the 21st century, have been buying SDRs like mad lately. When BRIC met in mid-June in the Siberian city of Yekaterinberg, it committed to giving $80 billion to the IMF, with China carrying the lion's share at $50 billion. Add that to the $250 billion that the G20 coughed up in April, and the IMF is quickly becoming the planet's reserve bank of choice.  

“There is a need to make the IMF a true representative of the world’s leading economies," Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin asserted in June. "It’s not there right now,” he said, adding that it would be a decade before what People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan recently called a super-sovereign reserve currency mounted enough of a challenge to displace the dollar.

In the meantime, Russia, China and the other BRIC members are putting their money where they want their mouths to be, which is in the International Monetary Fund's ear. But whether that super-sovereign reserve currency is the SDR is too soon to say

"The SDR can't handle the load in its current form," Zimeba argued. "You'd need a payment system that accepted the SDR, for one. But where it can grow is in reserve assets, and this upcoming issuance of IMF bonds denominated in SDR will be a significant increase. But SDRs will only be open to governments, not the secondary market where they can be traded, which fails the requirements of convertibility and liquidity.

"Right now, the SDR doesn't have that mechanism. But that can change over time. In the near term, this is a way towards diversification, because the dollar doesn't have a majority share in the SDR." 

Kunstler adds: "They're obviously hedging their bets as much as possible. Put yourself in their shoes. They see the U.S. financial system's stupendous swindles, and they know the score. So their interests are strictly tactical and strategic in the interests of their survival. They also surely want to try to insure the continuation of world trade, with or without the U.S. consumer." 

Which is why BRIC, and by extension the countries beneath its heel or shaking its hand, are diversifying their dollars and dumping cash into the IMF, where they can attempt to influence the international monetary system in their favor. The United States has so far committed $108 billion, including $5 billion siphoned from the controversial war-funding bill that passed in mid-June.

In addition, it has arranged for the IMF to receive over $500 billion altogether, mostly to prop up zombie European banks that drank too much of the derivatives Kool-Aid. So BRIC has an uphill battle ahead of it. But it's gaining strength, and wants to convert that to IMF say-so. 

"They want more significant voting rights in the IMF," Ziemba said. "The money is in exchange for leverage. China has talked in detail about how the over-reliance on the dollar was adding to global instability, creating a situation where the optimal monetary policy for the U.S. is not optimal for countries tacked to the dollar. But it's fairly obvious that, in five to 10 years, the role of these countries in the global economy will only increase. But they also have to figure out how much responsibility they want to take on." 

Or can take on. BRIC is ascendant for sure, but it's about to inherit a global economy and environment that is nothing like the respectively stable climates American and European empires have enjoyed over the last few hundred years. From the econopocalypse to climate crisis and beyond, BRIC is quickly going to find its hands full of problems that will doubtlessly dampen its upward surge. Sure, the dollar is toast, but so is Earth's biodiversity and store of natural resources. It's hard to build a superpower on that heap.  

"I think all nations are losing the ability to control events at the global level," Kunstler concluded. "It's a symptom of the crack-up of globalization, per se: A set of transient economic relations that only existed because of special conditions, namely, the final blowout of the cheap energy era. With that over, it's now a mad scramble for each player to survive.

"Observers seem to think that China will become the new global hegemon, but I doubt it. They have problems with water, food, overpopulation and environmental degradation that are much worse than ours. The world is comprehensively headed for a reduced standard of living."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.