Bill Bonner

Imagine the looks on their faces, when Deng Xiaoping sold them out.

The old commies in China had tried to make steel in backyard barbecues. They’d carried the fat Mao on a litter, on a long march to nowhere. They’d pretended his Little Red Book was more than drivel. They’d endured one absurdity after another…purges, starvation, and misery…all for the cause.

And now this…

“To get rich is glorious…” Xiaoping is alleged to have said.

Whether he said it or not, millions of Chinese took it to heart. They got richer, faster than any people ever had. The economy is now 10 times larger than it was then; it grew 300% just in the last 10 years. Incomes rose every year. There are now more millionaires in China than in France. Three times as many as in Britain. And more people are becoming millionaires there than anywhere else on earth.

Three decades ago, the world’s hinge creaked. Deng Xioaping opened a door in 1979. He announced a new oddity, a “socialist market economy.’’

We can imagine the looks on faces in Washington and London too. And why shouldn’t they gloat? They had won the Cold War; they had no idea that their victory would be fatal.

China took the capitalist road in 1979. Russia was not far behind. By the mid-’80s, it was already spending half its entire output on its military. And then the Americans started talking about neutron bombs and a “star wars” program. Leonid Brezhnev had a stroke. His successors faced the challenge, first with perestroika and finally with capitulation.

Meanwhile doors opened and shut in England, France and America, too. Maggie Thatcher moved into #10 Downing St. in 1979. Ronald Reagan brought ‘Morning in America’ to the White House in 1980. Like Thatcher and Xioaping, Reagan was determined to reduce the government’s role in the economy. And in 1981, Francois Mitterand entered the Elysee Palace in France. His stated goal was the opposite – to increase state involvement in the economy.

No matter what direction they claimed to be going, all the western economies ended up in more or less the same place – on the road to debt serfdom. While China got rich by encouraging (or perhaps merely allowing) capital formation, western nations got poorer, relatively, by consuming capital.

In France, and much of the rest of Europe, government led the consumption boom. While households continued saving at relatively high levels, Mitterand raised the cost of the welfare state. Minimum wages went up 10% immediately. Then, he cut the workweek and added so many benefits for the workingman that the system barely worked at all. French government debt rose from 20% of GDP in 1980 to 80% now; in a couple more years, the government will have spent an entire year’s output that France had not yet put out.

In Britain and America, government spending rose too. But household spending went up even faster. The resulting boom was almost magical; the effects were diabolical. Britain went from a debt/GP ratio of 43% in 1980, to over 65% today. Its deficits rose up too and now are projected to be the highest in the European Union – as much as 13% of GDP. But the big expansion in both Britain and America was in private household debt. Combined with government borrowing, it pushed total debt from about 150% of GDP in the mid-’80s to as high as 400% today.

Japan – the other major ‘western’ economy – has total government debt of nearly 200% of GDP. Its deficit is now so large that it must borrow an amount equal to the total it collects in income taxes. It is said, of course, that Japan has much debt but also much savings. The trouble is, the savings and the debt are largely the same money. Households saved. Government borrowed the money. The savings that are supposed to offset the debt have already been spent.

All together, Europe, America and Japan have total government debt of about $32 trillion, compared to total output of $34 trillion. Add $50 trillion or so of private debt, and you begin to see the bottom of the hole. In other words, the developed economies have borrowed nearly 3 years’ worth of future output. At 5% interest, (investors recently wanted Greece to pay 16%!) this means the western world must give up all the output from January 1st to the end of February just to stay in the same place.

Meanwhile, back in China, last week’s visit to Beijing revealed a glorious transformation. In the early ’80s, a visit to China was a hardship. The streets were drab. The people were drabber, in their grey clothes and grey towns. They stared at tourists as they had never before seen a capitalist. Minders still accompanied tourists. Most of the country was off-limits. There were few private automobiles and few roads deserving of them.

In just 3 decades Beijing has become one of the world’s most dynamic, forward-leaning cities, with new Audis and Mercedes bumper to bumper…as far as the eye can see. There are sparkling office towers with millions of earnest workers…and gleaming hotels with sleek prostitutes in the lobbies. Chinese entrepreneurs hustle deals at every table.

China is still an emerging economy. Europe, Japan and the USA, on the other hand, are submerging – sinking in a sea of debt. Getting rich is glorious. Getting poor is a damned shame.

Bill Bonner
for The Daily Reckoning

Bill Bonner

Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America's most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind The Daily ReckoningDice Have No Memory: Big Bets & Bad Economics from Paris to the Pampas, the newest book from Bill Bonner, is the definitive compendium of Bill's daily reckonings from more than a decade: 1999-2010. 

  • InvestorsFriend

    That is interesting…

    It is said that wetern countries are consuming capital…

    And yet Investment is still a large part of GDP… are the figures wrong?

    The stock of buildings and infrastructure is not really decreasing in total is it? I know some things crumble but there is lots of new building happening?

    Are we really living on capital?… I just want more evidence… an explanation in terms of GDP = consumption plus government plus investment plus net exports…

  • JMR bayou bobby

    beware the blind man describing an elephant

  • Lost & Found

    Bonner’s most in his element when adding up and desrcibing the debts of others, private and public.
    But then, there is not much due dilligence in there. And it definitely serves a private purpose.

  • Karl’s grand grandpa

    Hi BB,
    Getting rich is glorious. Getting poor is a damned shame…new Audis and Mercedes bumper to bumper. Does that means everything in life… besides that nothing else… I supposed you have a little holistic attribute.
    To be fair, those communist founders though poorly equipped with out-of-date economic theories, but, they produced little paper money supply and absolutely did not create girl supply. You should open your eyes a little. In term of justification, everybody is in the same degree of poverty.
    What does the aggressive, sophisticated in economic theory capitalist gets in return? Debt! Debt! Debit!. Result of exporting economic theories?

  • Dave

    Years ago when I was a very young man I used to tell friends that we should be very glad that the Chinese were communists and the day they decided to turn to capitalism is when we should begin to worry. That was probably the only macro theory I ever got right!

    However I don’t believe we should actually worry very much about China despite the antipathy that many Americans are trying to stir up these days. Our interests have probably never been more aligned than at this time.

  • Unknown Swordman

    Well, you have absolutely nothing to worry about inconceivable development in China. You should be more alert on your own habitual living that frequently triggers the economic alarm.

  • MA in USA

    Disclosure, Bonner, disclosure. What are Agora’s vested interests in China that make you write such drivel, such pure propaganda for a communist dictatorship? Real Americans don’t support China — they are the enemy!

  • Morgan in us said

    has every working American forgot it was r own people in government who sold us out.NAFTA comes to mind….

  • Pete

    >Real Americans don’t support China — they are the enemy!

    So all those people buying chinese-made stuff in Walmart or driving chinese-made cars aren’t Real Americans? :-(

    Bonner isn’t supporting China, he’s just stating what he’s seeing in China, and throwing in a few thoughts about macroencomonics.

    I think he’s missed the other side of the coin, though. Sure, the US/European model of living beyond our means by endlessly increasing debt doesn’t sound sustainable. But neither does the Chinese model of endlessly selling stuff on credit to countries who have no intention of ever paying their debts. Both models are so crazy, and so interconnected, that when one collapses it will bring the other down with it, making arguements about who is doing better irrelevant.

  • Bill Bonner’s Bigges Fan

    to commenter “Dave” – how about our “shared” interest in the remaining world oil supply or our shared interest in fresh water??

    seems we have quite a few “shared” interests with China… but how long can we share them??

  • Terri

    Everything we purchase is made in China from designer sportswear Ann Kline, Liz Cairborne, and a host of others. Look at the computer parts, car parts, accesorries. Folks, my grandfather predicted that the Chinese would be a world ruler and that was many years ago. They are disciplined and smart. I just wish I could find more items that relected MADE IN AMERICA. Nowhere to be found….

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