If you ever wondered why manufacturing employment has not done well over the last 15 years, President Clinton gave us part of the answer in a column giving advice on job creation. His 13th item on job creation is “Enforce Trade Laws,” where he tells readers:

“We lost manufacturing jobs in every one of the eight years after I left office. One of the reasons is that enforcement of our trade laws dropped sharply. Contrary to popular belief, the World Trade Organization and our trade agreements do not require unilateral disarmament. They’re designed to increase the volume of two-way trade on terms that are mutually beneficial. My administration negotiated 300 trade agreements, but we enforced them, too. Enforcement dropped so much in the last decade because we borrowed more and more money from the countries that had big trade surpluses with us, especially China and Japan, to pay for government spending. Since they are now our bankers, it’s hard to be tough on their unfair trading practices. This happened because we abandoned the path of balanced budgets 10 years ago, choosing instead large tax cuts especially for higher-income people like me, along with two wars and the senior citizens’ drug benefit. In the history of our republic, it’s the first time we ever cut taxes while going to war.”

Okay, we have some real serious confusion here from the former president. First, it is true that the economy lost manufacturing jobs in the eight years after President Clinton left office, but the job loss began in his last three years in office. Here are the numbers:

Change in Manufacturing Jobs

1998                         -140,000

1999                         -170,000

2000                         – 99,000

It is true that the pace of job loss picked up after Clinton left office, but this was due first and foremost to the recession caused by the collapse of the stock bubble. Blaming President Bush for that downturn would be like blaming Obama for the Lehman crisis if it happened to occur in February of 2009 rather than September of 2008. The downturn caused by the collapse of the bubble was the result of President Clinton’s team failure to try to rein in the bubble. As a result of the collapse of the stock bubble, the country had at the time the longest period without job growth since the Great Depression. It only began to create jobs again once the housing bubble began to fuel a construction and consumption boom.

Now for the other part of Clinton story:

“Enforcement dropped so much in the last decade because we borrowed more and more money from the countries that had big trade surpluses with us, especially China and Japan, to pay for government spending.”

Actually, if President Clinton paid attention to economic data he would have noticed that not only were we losing manufacturing jobs during his last three years in office, but the trade deficit was soaring. The trade deficit grew from just over 1 percent of GDP in 1996 to over 4.0 percent of GDP by the 4th quarter of 2000. President Clinton’s team must have been doing one heckuva job enforcing trade laws.

More importantly, the rest of his story makes no sense either. The United States borrows from China, Japan and other countries because of our trade deficit, not our budget deficit. We were borrowing huge amounts from Japan and China at the end of the Clinton presidency, but most of their loans went to buy stocks, private bonds, and mortgage backed securities, not government bonds. In fact, by the end of the Clinton presidency, because of the large trade deficit, the country was accruing debt to foreigners at a then record pace.

Anyone who thinks that this didn’t matter because the foreigners were holding private assets and not government debt should realize that if they desired for some reason to own government debt, any day of the week they could sell their stock, bonds, or mortgage backed securities and buy government debt. The issue is indebtedness to foreigners and the potential drain on future income. It matters not at all whether the debt is on the public or private side.

This raises the final point, why did the trade deficit soar in the last years of the Clinton administration (aside from the fact that President Clinton apparently was not paying attention)? The answer is simple. The value of the dollar soared.

This was the result of Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s high dollar policy. This was a rhetorical point when he first took over as Treasury secretary in 1995. He put the muscle of the IMF behind it in the East Asian bailouts of 1997. These bailouts forced the East Asian countries to repay debts in full. This could only be done by allowing the value of their currencies to plunge against the dollar, making their exports hyper-competitive.

Also, the IMF bailouts were considered so onerous by the rest of the developing world that every country that could decided it had to accumulate massive amounts of reserves to avoid ever being forced to turn to the IMF. This meant pushing down the value of their currencies against the dollar as well. In the late 90s, the normal flow of capital from rich countries to poor countries was reversed in a major way, with developing countries becoming massive lenders to the United States.

This was definitely bad policy, but it was President Clinton’s policy, not President Bush’s. The dollar actually depreciated moderately under President Bush. He certainly should have done more to push down its value, which would have corrected the imbalances built up in the Clinton years, but President Clinton has events seriously backward in this piece.