The global economy is heading toward a huge transformation. Can America rise to the challenge?
Neither of our two major political parties have at their cores a commitment to economic growth. In his second term, President Obama has an extraordinary opportunity to grab the golden ring, make a genuine commitment to sustainable, equitable growth, and follow that up with a credible, plausible entrepreneurial growth model.
But aren’t both parties pro-growth in their platforms and their various position statements? Of course they are. It’s a necessary ritual of political life. But for both the left and the right, growth is a residual – it’s what you’re for, after you get everything else you want. Moreover, both parties are wedded to whole sets of client groups whose agendas don’t include economic growth at all.
The right wants austerity, low taxes, budget surpluses, preferably no government but at the most a small and passive government, no abortion, a Christian nation, and no immigrants – all before it wants growth. There will certainly be those who argue that some of these elements are essential aspects of an economic growth strategy, but I’ve yet to see a serious and specific growth model from the right and I’ve heard nothing about equitable and sustainable growth. In any case, the problem is that you can’t just get elements of this list; holding today’s right-wing coalition together requires that you get the whole package.
The left favors large active government almost as a principle, rather than a tool for something. By far it’s highest priority is the current social safety net, unchanged forever. It does not regard debt or deficits as issues that matter. It is deeply contemptuous and dismissive of business, suspicious of markets, and is far more concerned about income distribution than about income expansion. It is very concerned – as it should be – about the short- and long-term effects of unemployment and it wants a sustainable and equitable world but sees no particular connection between these good things and economic growth. As with the right, one searches in vain for any useful theory or model of long run growth in the writings of the left.
The central attitude toward growth of both party philosophies is similar to the foreman on the loading dock who said, regarding his company’s attitude toward quality, “It’s in the slogan, and the vice president talks quality at least four times a year. But the assistant vice president talks shipping cases several times a day.”
Other than playing whack-a-mole with each other over the short-term growth rate right now, the view of both the left and right is that the economy is a perpetual motion machine that will just keep rumbling along. But it isn’t. Not ever and particularly not now.
Economies have rhythms. They don’t just march along forever at some preordained rate of growth. Big economies respond over decades, generations, to big impulses: revolutions in the cost of power, or transportation, or information; revolutions in the applications of these big cost shifts. These impulses spread throughout an economy, driving higher rates of economic growth, and then, as they become pervasive, lose their force. America has experienced such impulses, or waves, at least five times in the last 200 years. We are in the end phase of one such impulse and the very early stages of the next.
The “golden era” of the 20th century between roughly in 1950, and 1980 represented the full flourishing, the height of one such era and growth impulse. In these 30 years, the economy was dominated by large companies, managerial capitalism, and a financial system that evolved to meet those particular needs. The success of this era importantly shaped our expectations, our sense of how the world works, our institutions, and our politics. But as successful as this era was, the most important thing to know about it now is that it is over. Both parties – and both America’s left and right – believe or at least act as though it is returning again, it’s just around the corner. And it’s the other guy’s fault that it hasn’t rearrived yet.
But it’s not coming back. One reason among others is that we will never again see a world in which our economy dominates the world’s economy. Beginning in the 1970s, as colonial empires collapsed and economic philosophies were revolutionized, major new nation states entered the same world economy we were in along with billions of new workers and households. At first that represented a boost to us, but as the economic sophistication of these economies evolved this new world meant vast and hard structural shifts for us. As Michael Spence makes clear in his book “The Next Convergence,” much of the structural change we see and don’t like comes from this changing shape of the world. Falling manufacturing employment, the 20-year slowdown in income growth, a large piece of income inequality, and the polarization of our labor force are all due in part to the changing shape of the global economy. (Just to be clear, the other major factor in all of these structural shifts is technological change.)
We can’t do anything about the shape of the world, but we can figure out how to change and thrive in this new environment. Which means we have to have a new growth model.
Fortunately, another technological revolution is occurring now and all of the elements of a new growth model are coming together. The model plays to American strengths and is there for us develop – unless we choose to be stupid. The model will require entrepreneurial capitalism, independent capital, high levels of private sector investment, equally high levels of infrastructure investment, mayors who see their cities as platforms for growth, and an educational revolution. It requires us to see that technological change can, uniquely, work for us. I’ve called it an era of mass specialization; it can be much more equitable and environmentally sustainable than the golden era.
And here lies President Obama’s second transition task and a huge opportunity. He has to start immediately making this new growth model clear and comprehensible to Americans. He has to offer the hope that there is more to the future than just a repeat of the trends of the past. And he has to begin to propose the public policies that will allow the next growth era to be born. But above all, this will require that President Obama sees equitable, sustainable growth as the core of his governing philosophy for the second term. Two good places to start with would be to put his endorsement of Simson-Rivlin-Dominici-Bowles in the context of a focus on growth and to make this the theme of his January 2013 State of the Union.
President Obama told me once at a very small breakfast in New York – long before he was president – that he wanted to be a transformational president. I believe him, but I don’t think he’s achieved that yet. Here’s the chance. What could be more transformational, and more truly progressive, than to change America’s governing political philosophy, wrench our politics away from its infatuation with wedge issues and a return to the 1950s, and usher in a new era of growth? As I started by saying, the golden ring is out there and the merry-go-round is heading toward it.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.