Sunday, July 11, 2010

Michael Spence joins the heretics

Michael Spence, winner of the 2001 economics Nobel,
joins the heretic movement that was given voice by Andy Grove:

The structural evolution of the US economy over the past 15 years has been driven by excess consumption, enabled by debt-fuelled asset inflation. The crisis put a stop to this, but structural deficiencies remain. America’s export sector is too small and underdeveloped. The financial sector became outsized, and is down-sizing.

A pattern of underinvestment in infrastructure has left the economy less competitive than it should be. Energy pricing issues have been ignored, causing underinvestment in urban infrastructure and transport. The education system has widespread problems with efficiency and effectiveness...

The real issue is employment: not just stubbornly high unemployment, but a bigger problem described recently in a thoughtful article by Andy Grove, the long-time chief executive of Intel. He argued that manufacturing is vanishing in the US, a trend that must be reversed. The question is how.

There is little doubt that America’s social contract is starting to break. It had on one side an open, flexible economy, and on the other the promise of employment and rising incomes for the motivated and diligent. It is the second part that is unravelling.

Incomes in the middle-income range for most Americans have stagnated for more than 20 years. Manufacturing jobs are moving offshore. Globally the set of goods and services that is tradable is expanding, but the US and other advanced countries are not competing successfully for an adequate share of the tradable sector.

The employment effects of these trends over the past 15 years have been masked by excess consumption and the overdevelopment of sectors such as finance and real estate. The latter are now set to shrink, as multinational companies grow where they have access to high-growth emerging markets in Asia and Latin America. Such companies will locate their operations where market and supply chain opportunities lie. In the tradable sector, in manufacturing and in a growing group of services, that means outside advanced countries.

The availability of low-cost, disciplined labour forces in developing countries reduces the incentive for these companies to invest in technologies that enhance labour productivity in the tradable sectors of the advanced economies. As a result, the evolving composition of advanced economies is increasingly weighted towards the non-tradable sector, combined with a set of high-end tradable services where both human capital and proximity matter. The rest of the tradable sector is shrinking.

The shrinkage creates problems. Over-specialisation could threaten independence and national security. Spillovers between R&D, product development and manufacturing will be lost if manufacturers leave. Employment will stagnate. Income distribution will move adversely and the social contract will erode further...

To avoid an outbreak of protectionism, there has to be an alternative. President Barack Obama’s new export council, announced on Wednesday, is a step in the right direction. But a bolder move is needed: a broad public-private partnership to invest in the development of technology in parts of the tradable sector where there are opportunities to make advanced countries competitive. The goal must be to create capital-intensive jobs that have labour productivity levels consistent with advanced country incomes.

Would this damage developing countries? Clearly not. The US (or even developed economies combined) does not have hundreds of millions to employ. A targeted programme would leave the vast majority of labour-intensive manufacturing right where it is now: in the developing world. With new credible growth strategies in America (and other advanced countries) developing countries may even be willing to play an important complementary role in restoring global demand through, for example, the reduction of excess savings.

I added the emphasis, in order to note something very interesting: Spence obviously believes that export competitiveness is heavily influenced by the kind of public goods that I am always ranting about: infrastructure, education, and most importantly research. It is precisely these public goods that conservatives have neglected over the past 20-30 years, in their zeal to eliminate all government intervention in the economy. But it may be precisely these public goods that enable a country to have good high-paying middle-class jobs.

Anyway, blogger Mark Thoma already
endorses Spence's heresy. Paul Krugman hasn't addressed this particular controversy yet, but has made noises about China's currency policy. Could we have a movement on our hands?

(If so, one positive sign for the industrial-policy movement is the fact that the first people to criticize Grove's article have been editorialists from The Wall Street Journal and Forbes' Reihan Salam. As they say, "by their enemies shall you know them"...)

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