What's wrong with America's economy?
Its politicians are failing to tackle the country’s real problems. Believe it or not, they could learn from Europe
Apr 28th 2011 | from
PESSIMISM about the United States rarely pays off in the long run. Time and again, when Americans have felt particularly glum, their economy has been on the brink of a revival. Think of Jimmy Carter’s cardigan-clad gloom in the inflation-ridden late 1970s, or the fear of competition from Japan that marked the “jobless recovery” of the early 1990s. Both times the United States bounced back, boosted on the first occasion by Paul Volcker’s conquest of inflation and on the second by a productivity spurt that sent growth rates soaring in the mid-1990s even as Japan stalled. That record is worth bearing in mind today. Americans are unhappy, and becoming more so, about their country’s prospects and politicians’ efforts to improve them. In a new New York Times/CBS News poll, seven out of ten respondents said America is on the wrong track. Almost 60% of Americans disapprove of Barack Obama’s handling of the economy, and three out of four think Congress is doing a lousy job. This malaise partly reflects the sluggishness of the recovery. Though unemployment has been falling and share prices are close to a three-year high, house prices are still in the dumps and the price of petrol has soared to levels not seen since the summer of 2008. But it’s not all about oil or indeed the short term. A careful reading of the polls suggests that Americans’ worries stretch well beyond the next couple of years: about stagnating living standards and a dark future in an economy slow to create jobs, saddled with big government deficits and under threat from China. Tellingly, a majority now regard China, not America, as the world’s leading economy. Are these worries justified? On the plus side, it is hard to think of any large country with as many inherent long-term advantages as America: what would China give to have a Silicon Valley? Or Germany an Ivy League? But it is also plain that the United States does indeed have long-term economic weaknesses—and ones that will take time to fix. The real worry for Americans should be that their politicians, not least their president, are doing so little to tackle these underlying problems. Three failings stand out. The competitiveness canard The first failing, of which Mr Obama in particular is guilty, is misstating the problem. He likes to frame America’s challenges in terms of “competitiveness”, particularly versus China. America’s prosperity, he argues, depends on “out-innovating, out-educating and out-building” China. This is mostly nonsense. America’s prosperity depends not on other countries’ productivity growth, but on its own (actually pretty fast) pace. Ideas spill over from one economy to another: when China innovates Americans benefit.
Of course, plenty more could be done to spur innovation. The system of corporate taxation is a mess and deters domestic investment. Mr. Obama is right that America’s infrastructure is creaking. But the solution there has as much to do with reforming Neanderthal funding systems as it does with the greater public spending he advocates. Too much of the “competitiveness” talk is a canard—one that justifies misguided policies, such as subsidies for green technology, and diverts attention from the country’s real to-do list. High on that list is sorting out America’s public finances. The budget deficit is huge and public debt, at over 90% of GDP when measured in an internationally comparable manner, is high and rising fast. Apart from Japan, America is the only big rich economy that does not have a plan for getting its public finances under control. The good news is that politicians are at last paying attention: deficit reduction is just about all anybody talks about in Washington, DC, these days. The bad news—and the second reason for gloom about what the politicians are up to—is that neither party is prepared to make the basic compromises that are essential to a deal. Republicans refuse to accept that taxes will have to rise, Democrats that spending on “entitlements” such as health care and pensions must fall. No real progress is likely until after the 2012 presidential election. And the antagonism of today’s deficit debate may even harm the economy, as Republicans push for excessive cuts in next year’s budget. When growth doesn’t bring jobs Meanwhile, the biggest dangers lie in an area that politicians barely mention: the labour market. The recent decline in the jobless rate has been misleading, the result of a surprisingly small growth in the workforce (as discouraged workers drop out) as much as fast job creation. A stubborn 46% of America’s jobless, some 6m people, have been out of work for more than six months. The weakness of the recovery is mostly to blame, but there are signs that America may be developing a distinctly European disease: structural unemployment. Youth unemployment is especially high, and joblessness among the young leaves lasting scars. Strong productivity growth has been achieved partly through the elimination of many mid-skilled jobs. And what makes this all the more worrying is that, below the radar screen, America had employment problems long before the recession, particularly for lesser-skilled men. These were caused not only by sweeping changes from technology and globalisation, which affect all countries, but also by America’s habit of locking up large numbers of young black men, which drastically diminishes their future employment prospects. America has a smaller fraction of prime-age men in work and in the labour force than any other G7 economy. Some 25% of men aged 25-54 with no college degree, 35% of high-school dropouts and almost 70% of black high-school dropouts are not working. Beyond the toll to individuals, the lack of work among less-skilled men could have huge fiscal and social consequences. The cost of disability payments is some $120 billion (almost 1% of GDP) and rising fast. Male worklessness has been linked with lower marriage rates and weakening family bonds. All this means that grappling with entrenched joblessness deserves to be far higher on America’s policy agenda. Unfortunately, the few (leftish) politicians who acknowledge the problem tend to have misguided solutions, such as trade barriers or industrial policy to prop up yesterday’s jobs or to spot tomorrow’s. That won’t work: government has a terrible record at picking winners. Instead, America needs to get its macro-medicine right, in particular by committing itself to medium-term fiscal and monetary stability without excessive short-term tightening. But it also needs job-market
reforms, from streamlining and upgrading training to increasing employers’ incentives to hire the low-skilled. And there, strange as it may seem, America could learn from Europe: the Netherlands, for instance, is a good model for how to overhaul disability insurance. Stemming the decline in low-skilled men’s work will also demand more education reform to boost skills, as well as a saner approach to drugs and imprisonment. Technology and globalisation are remaking labour markets across the rich world, to the relative detriment of the lower-skilled. That’s why a rosier outlook for America’s economy does not necessarily mean a rosy future for all Americans. Mr Obama and his opponents can help to shape the process. Sadly, they are doing so for the worse rather than the better.
——它的政客们都未能解决国家的真正的问题。信不信由你,它 ——它的政客们都未能解决国家的真正的问题。信不信由你 它 它的政客们都未能解决国家的真正的问题 们可以向欧洲学习。 们可以向欧洲学习。
从长远角度而言，悲观主义者对美国经济的悲观预期常常落空。一次又一次地，当美国 人觉得前途一片黯淡时，他们的经济其实就正处于新一轮复苏的谷底。想想总统吉米．卡特 在 1970 年代后期那过度繁荣的美国经济（高通胀） ，或者看看 1990 年代初，在日本竞争面 前畏葸不前的那段“无就业复苏”。美国在这两个节点都触底反弹，在 1970 年代末，保罗沃 尔克驯服了通胀，90 年代初生产率的井喷使美国在 90 年代中期坐上了如同喷气式火箭式的 发展，但日本却遭遇瓶颈。 今天我们有必要重新回顾这些记录。 美国人对国家前景和政客们匡扶经济的能力忧心忡 忡，而且越演愈烈。在《纽约时报》和哥伦比亚广播公司的一项调查中，70%的人称美国正 在误入歧途。差不多有 60%美国人不赞成奥巴马的经济政策，75%的人认为国会的表现差强 人意。 这种困扰一定程度上反映了复苏的疲软。 尽管失业率已经下降， 股价接近三年来的最高 点，房屋价格依然在底部徘徊，油价飙升至 2008 年夏季以来的新高，但油价并非一切的罪 魁祸首。仔细阅读民意调查就会发现，美国人的忧虑将在以后几年绵绵不绝：担心生活水平 停滞不前，忧心新增就业缓慢，前景渺茫，经济被庞大的政府债务拖累，还要面对中国咄咄 逼人的威胁。显而易见的是，中国取代了美国成为大多数人心中的头号经济体。 这些担忧有道理吗？从积极的一面来看， 很难想象其他大国会像美国一样有这么多内在 的长期优势： 中国有硅谷吗？德国有常春藤联盟吗？但同样显而易见的是， 美国确实存在长 期的经济短板——需要时间来修补。美国人真正应该担心的是，他们的政治家（不仅仅是总 统）在处理这些潜在问题时毫无建树。他们失败在以下三个方面。 第一重失误就是谎报问题， 奥巴马则难逃其责任。 他喜欢将美国的挑战描述成竞争力威 胁，尤其是在中国面前。他宣称，美国的繁荣取决于“在创新、教育、建筑方面超越”中国。 这简直是一派胡言。美国的繁荣不取决于其他国家的生产率，而是自己的发展速度（确实相 当快） 。思想会溢出国家的边境：中国的创新会使美国受益。 当然，在激励创新方面美国还有许多事情要做。公司税制如一团乱麻，让其国内的投资 望而却步。 而奥巴马正确地指出了美国的基础设施年久失修。 但是改革保守的融资体制与他 提倡的扩张公共开支同样紧迫。 夸夸其谈“竞争力”只是在散布谣言——不过是为补贴新能源 技术等错误政策辩护，并转移公众对当务之急的注意力。 美国的当务之急之一就是清理公共财政。预算赤字庞大，依照国际标准，美国国债已经 占据 GDP 的 90%，岌岌可危，增长迅猛。除了日本，美国是唯一一个在控制公共财政方面 毫无计划的发达国家。 好消息是政治家起码已经注意到这个问题： 华盛顿的人们这些天都在 谈论赤字削减。坏消息是两党在达成协议方面各不让步。共和党拒绝接受增税提案。民主党 在医保、 养老金方面的开支计划注定要落空。 2012 年大选尘埃落定前很难有实质性进展。 在 由于共和党极力争取削减明年的预算，如今在赤字问题上的对抗可能会伤及经济。
经济增长并未带来就业 与此同时，最大的危险潜伏在政客们很少注意的领域：劳动力市场。最近失业率的下降 只是烟雾弹，工作被快速创造出来，就业人数的增长却微乎其微（因为失望的工人退出了） ， 这种结果令人惊讶。美国 600 万人失业人口中有 46%已近 6 个月没有工作。经济复苏的脆 弱备受诟病，但是种种信号表明美国正在感染一种欧洲病：结构性失业。 年轻人的失业率格外高， 失业将给他们留下永远的创伤。 生产率的强劲增长部分是由于 一些中等技术岗位被淘汰。 雪上加霜的是， 美国的失业问题在衰退之前已经悄无声息地存在 了很久，尤其是非熟练工。这不仅是由于新技术和全球化的席卷冲击，还因为美国长期以来 对年轻黑人的限制，严重地摧毁了他们的就业前景。在 G7 之中，美国劳动人口中未成年人 的比例比其他国家都要小。25——54 岁的人口中有 25%没有大学学位，35%大学辍学，差 不多有 70%的大学辍学黑人失业在家。 非熟练工的短缺将带来严重的财政和社会问题。伤残救济金高达 1200 亿美元（差不多 是 GDP 的 1%）且在快速上升。男性失业将降低结婚率，弱化家庭纽带。 这一切数值都意味着解决根深蒂固的失业问题在美国的政治决策中应被提到更高的位 置。但不幸的是，少数承认问题所在的左派政治家开出了错误的药方，比如贸易壁垒，或是 支撑夕阳产业、发掘朝阳产业的产业政策。可是这些都无济于事的：政府在扶植产业方面败 绩累累。美国急需在宏观政策上抓住要害，尤其是保持中期财政、货币政策的稳定性，而不 是短期内的过度干预。但是，它还需要改革劳动力市场，改造升级就业培训，激励企业家雇 佣非熟练工人。虽然看起来有些奇怪，但美国确实应向欧洲学习，比如荷兰——在改革伤残 保险方面是个很好的榜样。若想止住非熟练工作减少的趋势，还需偏重技术的教育改革。 新技术和全球化正在重塑发达国家的劳动力市场， 将会对低技术工人造成相对损害。 这 就是为何，美国经济的光明前景并非对每个美国人都是好事。在这个过程中，奥巴马和其对 手本可以助一臂之力。可惜的是，他们正在帮倒忙。