Friday, January 30, 2009

Where Will the Growth Come From?

One of the fundamental questions of the economy is where will new growth come from. Old sources of growth don't seem to be available anymore. This a long piece in the NYT Magazine and well worth reading. Alas, what I've read so far doesn't take into account the whole problem of peak oil and more expensive energy coming very soon, which is going to be a drag on economic growth, and highlights the desperate need for clean, alternative energy and intensive conservation efforts.

Yet there are real concerns that the United States’ economy won’t grow enough to pay off its debts easily and ensure rising living standards, as happened in the postwar decades. The fraternity of growth experts in the economics profession predicts that the economy, on its current path, will grow more slowly in the next couple of decades than over the past couple. They are concerned in part because two of the economy’s most powerful recent engines have been exposed as a mirage: the explosion in consumer debt and spending, which lifted short-term growth at the expense of future growth, and the great Wall Street boom, which depended partly on activities that had very little real value.

Richard Freeman, a
Harvard economist, argues that our bubble economy had something in common with the old Soviet economy. The Soviet Union’s growth was artificially raised by massive industrial output that ended up having little use. Ours was artificially raised by mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and even the occasional Ponzi scheme.

Where will new, real sources of growth come from? Wall Street is not likely to cure the nation’s economic problems. Neither, obviously, is Detroit. Nor is Silicon Valley, at least not by itself. Well before the housing bubble burst, the big productivity gains brought about by the 1990s technology boom seemed to be
petering out, which suggests that the Internet may not be able to fuel decades of economic growth in the way that the industrial inventions of the early 20th century did. Annual economic growth in the current decade, even excluding the dismal contributions that 2008 and 2009 will make to the average, has been the slowest of any decade since the 1930s.

So for the first time in more than 70 years, the epicenter of the American economy can be placed outside of California or New York or the industrial Midwest. It can be placed in Washington. Washington won’t merely be given the task of pulling the economy out of the immediate crisis. It will also have to figure out how to put the American economy on a more sustainable path — to help it achieve fast, broadly shared growth and do so without the benefit of a bubble.

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