Over the past few weeks I’ve had a chance to speak with senior economic policy makers in America and Germany and I think I’ve figured out where we are. It’s like this: things are getting better, except where they aren’t. The bailouts are working, except where they’re not. Things will slowly get better, unless they slowly get worse. We should know soon, unless we don’t.
It is no wonder that businesses are reluctant to hire with such “unusual uncertainty,” as Fed chief Ben Bernanke put it. One reason it is so unusual is that we are not just trying to recover from a financial crisis triggered by crazy mortgage lending. We’re also having to deal with three huge structural problems that built up over several decades and have reached a point of criticality at the same time.
And as Mohamed El-Erian, the C.E.O. of Pimco, has been repeating, “Structural problems need structural solutions.” There are no quick fixes. In America and Europe, we are going to need some big structural fixes to get back on a sustained growth path — changes that will require a level of political consensus and sacrifice that has been sorely lacking in most countries up to now.
The first big structural problem is America’s. We’ve just ended more than a decade of debt-fueled growth during which we borrowed money from China to give ourselves a tax cut and more entitlements but did nothing to curtail spending or make long-term investments in new growth engines. Now our government owes more than ever and has more future obligations than ever — like expanded Medicare prescription drug benefits, expanded health care, an expanded war in Afghanistan and expanded Social Security payments (because the baby boomers are about to retire) — and less real growth to pay for it all.
America will probably need some added stimulus to kick start employment, but any stimulus right now must be in growth-enabling investments that will yield more than their costs, or they just increase debt. That means investments in skill building and infrastructure plus tax incentives for starting new businesses and export promotion. To get a stimulus through Congress it must be paired with spending cuts and/or tax increases timed for when the economy improves.
Second, America’s solvency inflection point is coinciding with a technological one. Thanks to Internet diffusion, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and the shift from laptops and desktops to hand-held iPads and iPhones, technology is destroying older, less skilled jobs that paid a decent wage at a faster pace than ever while spinning off more new skilled jobs that pay a decent wage but require more education than ever.
There is only one way to deal with this challenge: more innovation to stimulate new industries and jobs that can pay workers $40 an hour, coupled with a huge initiative to train more Americans to win these jobs over their global competitors. There is no other way.
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- Our ‘Unusually Uncertain’ Economy (npr.org)
- ‘Noisy’ Economic Data Indicate Uncertain Outlook, El-Erian Says (businessweek.com)
- Should We Be More Like Germany? (outsidethebeltway.com)