Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mis-Allocated Resources

Lest we forget, one of the reasons that the financial crisis is having such a deep impact on America's economy is the lack of underlying vigor in that very economy. Make no mistake, the immediate issues relate to growing government debt, sky-high consumer debt, and the breakdown of the financial system. But would we have piled up so much debt if economic growth had been greater? Would US trade have been so imbalanced if we had had goods and services to provide that the rest of the world wanted? Would we face such a low probability of ever paying American's debts (approaching zero now) if our economy were more competitive?

One of the issues brought to the fore by the present financial crisis is the extent to which America's productive capacity has been hollowed out. Now there is no doubt that the US cannot compete against the titans of East Asia.

The US needs to fix these problems, but how? Let's look at how we got into this mess. A lot of ink has been written on the immediate financial crisis, but there is more involved than that.

Bubble after bubble has resulted in wasting this country's productive effort on assets that it doesn't need. Houses, shopping malls, internet concept stocks -- all were bubbles that wasted billions of dollars that could have funded productive, forward-looking activities. And yet there was little competition for those dollars, because little thought went into preparing the US for the future. Even as we watched the world changing around us, economic issue after economic issue was ignored while the nation blindly stumbled its way into indebtedness and obsolescence.

Yes, we have idly watched the world changing around us. First, the bombed-out industries of Europe and Japan caught up and then surpassed the US in many areas. Then undeveloped countries like China and the former European colonies caught fire and started on the path to development. If the emerging markets are developing basic industries that produce the same goods that US can produce, but at a fraction of the input costs, you know that the US has a serious challenge. US industries tried to adapt, but eventually even high tech industries migrated overseas. Emerging economies out-competed the US in autos, textiles, electronics, and other industries on which we once depended.

Once, you would have expected the US to respond to a changing world by maturing its economy to another level, either undercutting its competitors in established markets or using its technological and educational resources to innovate and develop products and markets. After World War II the US had a tremendous lead in technology, industrial capacity, research and development, and education to serve as the basis innovation.

But the US let its supposedly enduring advantages erode away. Policy focused instead on keeping Americans happy and comfortable, and not on preparing for the future. In recognition of this new role for the citizenry, we decided to refer to ourselves as "consumers" rather than as "citizens". Consumers let themselves be lulled into a false sense of security. When economic challenges arose overseas, consumers responded to an eroding standard of living first with two-job families, and then by accumulating debt.

Divisive politics fanned fears and kept voters' attention focused away from the real challenges facing the country. Concerns with debt, both personal and national, were scorned as old-fashioned. Serious coordination of economic growth was viewed as too "socialist" for a country like America. Laissez-faire doctrine ran unchecked and landed us where we are today, the victims and perpetrators of a financial crisis.

Along the way, no serious thought was given to building a long-term foundation for a growing and competitive economy. Our industrial capabilities aged and dwindled. American innovations were exploited to the advantage of nations with nimbler businesses, cheaper labor, and access to capital markets that now serve the entire world. New US growth went into service industries that fed the consumer and left the US uncompetitive.

Now that the US is saddled with growing debt loads, an uncompetitive economy leaves few alternatives for responding to the crisis. Building a competitive nation takes a long time.
Of course, the thought of investing for the future is futile now, because we cannot afford the investment. Few can afford advanced education, and the technological lead is gradually moving more overseas. If the US is becoming a banana republic economically, it is also falling toward the lower tiers in science, engineering, education, and health -- all of the things we need to build up our human resources.

Beyond the obvious low interest rates that prompted all the borrowing and the asset bubbles, what kind of errors contributed to this situation? Some are on the front pages, but others are not. Let's see . . .

Students were motivated to study for MBA and became little managers. No one wanted to be a scientist or engineer. No one wanted to do real work. No one wanted to develop new knowledge or apply knowledge to innovate new products.

What about all of the effort devoted to building bigger and bigger houses? Who really needs all of that space? Prudence was left by the wayside when people engage in consumption arms races with their neighors. Vanity and lack of regard for the future drove people to live at the edge of affordability and risk going over the edge, which many eventually did.

What could we have done with all of the resources that went into building unneeded housing space? If we had spend the money on other activities, we could have bought infrastructure, an educated work force, research and development, or modern production systems. All would have made us more competitive and furthered future growth.

It wasn't just housing. A consumer society needs lots of stores, and retail companies waged their own arms race in expanding the available shopping space. Why did the US need so much more retail space than other countries need? Was it because the citizen needed to be distracted from political reality by a fantasy world? A recent New York Times article cites the book Retrofitting Suburbia that the US had 20 square feet per capita of retail space in 2003, while the next largest amount was 13 square feet for Canada. Sweden had only 3 square feet per capita. Did we really need so much retail space? Much of it is sitting vacant now. What if we had allocated the economic resources not to the unneeded houses and shops, but rather to the activites that I mentioned earlier -- infrastructure, an educated work force, research and development, or modern production systems? Maybe we would be more productive and able to pay our bills. All it would have taken was a little thought for the future and less political exploitation of the citizenry.

Many laissez-faire extremists say that Government has no role in making such decisions. Let the markets decide, they say, and you are a Communist if you disagree. Well, there are no historical data to support their extreme position, and we now see what lies those deluded extremists told. We see what hate they fomented to distract the electorate and hold onto their power. Sure, we need individual initiative in the economy, but it is now obvious that some government coordinating role is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, whatever the way forward, it will be a long time before America digs itself out of the debt hole.