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 - Published on The Economist, April 28, 2011.

… 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 (see article).

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. (full text).

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