How did it come to this? Who could have imagined such a thing?

How is it possible that the United States of America, the greatest economic force in the history of the world, has been reduced to grumbling about the way China manages its money?

But here we are. One more insult added to the lingering injury inflicted on our country by the economic turmoil that has left so many Americans suffering from the agony of joblessness and fighting desperately to resist the onset of hopelessness.

There seems to be little doubt that China has manipulated its currency to undervalue the Chinese equivalent of the dollar, the yuan, and by doing so has gained unfair advantage in the pricing of goods it exports to the United States. For reasons that are both political and economic — primarily to avoid touching off a “trade war” with China — the United States has not formally accused its competitor/creditor of currency manipulation. American officials have chosen instead to pursue a strategy of persuasion, hoping that China will decide to play fair to avoid the threat of increased tariffs.

An argument can be made that the strategy is working — the yuan has increased in value in recent years — but the process is too slow for the taste of many in Congress, including Maine’s Sen. Olympia Snowe and 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud, who are pushing legislation that would hold China accountable for deliberately undervaluing its currency.

A bill co-authored by Snowe won preliminary approval in the Senate last week and is scheduled for a final vote on Tuesday. Similar legislation in the House faces opposition from Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who said it would be “pretty dangerous” for Congress to pass legislation telling another country how to manage its currency.

BUSINESS OPPOSED

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also opposes the legislation, The Associated Press reported, because it would “only serve to increase trade tensions and negatively impact the U.S. economic recovery during this fragile period in the global economy.”

In other words, a U.S. crackdown on Chinese currency manipulation could cause problems for American companies that do business in China.

President Obama, meanwhile, wants Congress to butt out and let his administration deal with the Chinese currency problem by less confrontational means than a bill that condemns China’s monetary policy as a “prohibited export subsidy” punishable by stiff tariffs on Chinese products.

All this adds up to — well, to nothing, when it comes right down to it. Unless Boehner changes his mind, the legislation under consideration in Congress is unlikely to pass in the House and is mostly symbolic, in any case. We applaud Snowe and Michaud for standing up to China in defense of Maine businesses that are paying the price for China’s monetary maneuvering, but they have to know that this dust-up over the value of the yuan is only one small piece of the extremely complicated puzzle that defines America’s relationship with China.

For better or worse, China owns a massive amount of U.S. debt and represents 37 percent of this country’s $428 billion trade deficit. Complaining about China’s cheap yuan makes good congressional theater but it doesn’t solve our economic problems — not even our problems with China.

It’s been said so many times it’s almost a cliche, but the United States simply has to be more competitive in the global economy. We can rail about corporations sending jobs to China and elsewhere and parking cash reserves overseas instead of investing them in our economy, but we must take decisive steps to encourage investment and expansion if our economy is to grow and create jobs.

MICHAUD’S NATIONAL STRATEGY

To that end, both Snowe and Michaud have offered proposals that could be far more helpful than any “message bill” dealing with currency manipulation. Snowe has been pushing to relieve businesses from the suffocating burden of regulations that inhibit investment. Michaud has called for a “national manufacturing strategy” that would encourage domestic production.

“We should seek input from companies that currently choose to make their products in the U.S.,” Michaud said in a congressional speech last spring, “and we should also consider ways to incentivize U.S. production through our tax structure.”

The fact is, other countries make it easier for U.S. companies to make a profit than the United States does. That has to change.

It might seem odd to think of the Cold War as the good old days, but it wasn’t so long ago that China was an isolated Marxist state whose ability to jangle U.S. nerves flowed almost entirely from its propensity to produce nuclear weapons — and its potential willingness to use them. We never would have dreamed back then that China would one day own more than $1 trillion of America’s national debt, or threaten our economic security by challenging our pre-eminence in the global economy.

But here we are. And the only real answer to China’s tactics is to rebuild our economy and restake our claim as the foremost superpower in the international marketplace.