30 January 2009

The Big Fix ~ NYT

February 1, 2009
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The Big Fix


The economy will recover. It won’t recover anytime soon. It is likely to get significantly worse over the course of 2009, no matter what President Obama and Congress do. And resolving the financial crisis will require both aggressiveness and creativity. In fact, the main lesson from other crises of the past century is that governments tend to err on the side of too much caution — of taking the punch bowl away before the party has truly started up again. “The mistake the United States made during the Depression and the Japanese made during the ’90s was too much start-stop in their policies,” said Timothy Geithner, Obama’s choice for Treasury secretary, when I went to visit him in his transition office a few weeks ago. Japan announced stimulus measures even as it was cutting other government spending. Franklin Roosevelt flirted with fiscal discipline midway through the New Deal, and the country slipped back into decline.

Geithner arguably made a similar miscalculation himself last year as a top Federal Reserve official who was part of a team that allowed Lehman Brothers to fail. But he insisted that the Obama administration had learned history’s lesson. “We’re just not going to make that mistake,” Geithner said. “We’re not going to do that. We’ll keep at it until it’s done, whatever it takes.”

Once governments finally decide to use the enormous resources at their disposal, they have typically been able to shock an economy back to life. They can put to work the people, money and equipment sitting idle, until the private sector is willing to begin using them again. The prescription developed almost a century ago by John Maynard Keynes does appear to work.

But while Washington has been preoccupied with stimulus and bailouts, another, equally important issue has received far less attention — and the resolution of it is far more uncertain. What will happen once the paddles have been applied and the economy’s heart starts beating again? How should the new American economy be remade? Above all, how fast will it grow?

That last question may sound abstract, even technical, compared with the current crisis. Yet the consequences of a country’s growth rate are not abstract at all. Slow growth makes almost all problems worse. Fast growth helps solve them. As Paul Romer, an economist at Stanford University, has said, the choices that determine a country’s growth rate “dwarf all other economic-policy concerns.”

Growth is the only way for a government to pay off its debts in a relatively quick and painless fashion, allowing tax revenues to increase without tax rates having to rise. That is essentially what happened in the years after World War II. When the war ended, the federal government’s debt equaled 120 percent of the gross domestic product (more than twice as high as its likely level by the end of next year). The rapid economic growth of the 1950s and ’60s — more than 4 percent a year, compared with 2.5 percent in this decade — quickly whittled that debt away. Over the coming 25 years, if growth could be lifted by just one-tenth of a percentage point a year, the extra tax revenue would completely pay for an $800 billion stimulus package.

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. Obama said as much in his inauguration speech when he pledged to overhaul Washington’s approach to education, health care, science and infrastructure, all in an effort to “lay a new foundation for growth.”

For centuries, people have worried that economic growth had limits — that the only way for one group to prosper was at the expense of another. The pessimists, from Malthus and the Luddites and on, have been proved wrong again and again. Growth is not finite. But it is also not inevitable. It requires a strategy.


TWO WEEKS AFTER THE ELECTION, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, appeared before an audience of business executives and laid out an idea that Lawrence H. Summers, Obama’s top economic adviser, later described to me as Rahm’s Doctrine. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Emanuel said. “What I mean by that is that it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.”

In part, the idea is standard political maneuvering. Obama had an ambitious agenda — on health care, energy and taxes — before the economy took a turn for the worse in the fall, and he has an interest in connecting the financial crisis to his pre-existing plans. “Things we had postponed for too long, that were long term, are now immediate and must be dealt with,” Emanuel said in November. Of course, the existence of the crisis doesn’t force the Obama administration to deal with education or health care. But the fact that the economy appears to be mired in its worst recession in a generation may well allow the administration to confront problems that have festered for years. That’s the crux of the doctrine.

The counterargument is hardly trivial — namely, that the financial crisis is so serious that the administration shouldn’t distract itself with other matters. That is a risk, as is the additional piling on of debt for investments that might not bear fruit for a long while. But Obama may not have the luxury of trying to deal with the problems separately. This crisis may be his one chance to begin transforming the economy and avoid future crises.

In the early 1980s, an economist named Mancur Olson developed a theory that could fairly be called the academic version of Rahm’s Doctrine. Olson, a University of Maryland professor who died in 1998, is one of those academics little known to the public but famous among his peers. His seminal work, “The Rise and Decline of Nations,” published in 1982, helped explain how stable, affluent societies tend to get in trouble. The book turns out to be a surprisingly useful guide to the current crisis.

In Olson’s telling, successful countries give rise to interest groups that accumulate more and more influence over time. Eventually, the groups become powerful enough to win government favors, in the form of new laws or friendly regulators. These favors allow the groups to benefit at the expense of everyone else; not only do they end up with a larger piece of the economy’s pie, but they do so in a way that keeps the pie from growing as much as it otherwise would. Trade barriers and tariffs are the classic example. They help the domestic manufacturer of a product at the expense of millions of consumers, who must pay high prices and choose from a limited selection of goods.

Olson’s book was short but sprawling, touching on everything from the Great Depression to the caste system in India. His primary case study was Great Britain in the decades after World War II. As an economic and military giant for more than two centuries, it had accumulated one of history’s great collections of interest groups — miners, financial traders and farmers, among others. These interest groups had so shackled Great Britain’s economy by the 1970s that its high unemployment and slow growth came to be known as “British disease.”

Germany and Japan, on the other hand, were forced to rebuild their economies and political systems after the war. Their interest groups were wiped away by the defeat. “In a crisis, there is an opportunity to rearrange things, because the status quo is blown up,” Frank Levy, an M.I.T. economist and an Olson admirer, told me recently. If a country slowly glides down toward irrelevance, he said, the constituency for reform won’t take shape. Olson’s insight was that the defeated countries of World War II didn’t rise in spite of crisis. They rose because of it.

The parallels to the modern-day United States, though not exact, are plain enough. This country’s long period of economic pre-eminence has produced a set of interest groups that, in Olson’s words, “reduce efficiency and aggregate income.” Home builders and real estate agents pushed for housing subsidies, which made many of them rich but made the real estate bubble possible. Doctors, drug makers and other medical companies persuaded the federal government to pay for expensive treatments that have scant evidence of being effective. Those treatments are the primary reason this country spends so much more than any other on medicine. In these cases, and in others, interest groups successfully lobbied for actions that benefited them and hurt the larger economy.

Surely no interest group fits Olson’s thesis as well as Wall Street. It used an enormous amount of leverage — debt — to grow to unprecedented size. At times Wall Street seemed ubiquitous. Eight Major League ballparks are named for financial-services companies, as are the theater for the Alvin Ailey dance company, a top children’s hospital in New York and even a planned entrance of the St. Louis Zoo. At Princeton, the financial-engineering program, meant to educate future titans of finance, enrolled more undergraduates than any of the traditional engineering programs. Before the stock market crashed last year, finance companies earned 27 percent of the nation’s corporate profits, up from about 15 percent in the 1970s and ’80s. These profits bought political influence. Congress taxed the income of hedge-fund managers at a lower rate than most everyone else’s. Regulators didn’t ask too many hard questions and then often moved on to a Wall Street job of their own.

In good times — or good-enough times — the political will to beat back such policies simply doesn’t exist. Their costs are too diffuse, and their benefits too concentrated. A crisis changes the dynamic. It’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.

England’s crisis was the Winter of Discontent, in 1978-79, when strikes paralyzed the country and many public services shut down. The resulting furor helped elect Margaret Thatcher as prime minister and allowed her to sweep away some of the old economic order. Her laissez-faire reforms were flawed in some important ways — taken to an extreme, they helped create the current financial crisis — and they weren’t the only reason for England’s turnaround. But they made a difference. In the 30 years since her election, England has grown faster than Germany or Japan.


ONE GOOD WAY TO UNDERSTAND the current growth slowdown is to think of the debt-fueled consumer-spending spree of the past 20 years as a symbol of an even larger problem. As a country we have been spending too much on the present and not enough on the future. We have been consuming rather than investing. We’re suffering from investment-deficit disorder.

You can find examples of this disorder in just about any realm of American life. Walk into a doctor’s office and you will be asked to fill out a long form with the most basic kinds of information that you have provided dozens of times before. Walk into a doctor’s office in many other rich countries and that information — as well as your medical history — will be stored in computers. These electronic records not only reduce hassle; they also reduce medical errors. Americans cannot avail themselves of this innovation despite the fact that the United States spends far more on health care, per person, than any other country. We are spending our money to consume medical treatments, many of which have only marginal health benefits, rather than to invest it in ways that would eventually have far broader benefits.

Along similar lines, Americans are indefatigable buyers of consumer electronics, yet a smaller share of households in the United States has broadband Internet service than in Canada, Japan, Britain, South Korea and about a dozen other countries. Then there’s education: this country once led the world in educational attainment by a wide margin. It no longer does. And transportation: a trip from Boston to Washington, on the fastest train in this country, takes six-and-a-half hours. A trip from Paris to Marseilles, roughly the same distance, takes three hours — a result of the French government’s commitment to infrastructure.

These are only a few examples. Tucked away in the many statistical tables at the Commerce Department are numbers on how much the government and the private sector spend on investment and research — on highways, software, medical research and other things likely to yield future benefits. Spending by the private sector hasn’t changed much over time. It was equal to 17 percent of G.D.P. 50 years ago, and it is about 17 percent now. But spending by the government — federal, state and local — has changed. It has dropped from about 7 percent of G.D.P. in the 1950s to about 4 percent now.

Governments have a unique role to play in making investments for two main reasons. Some activities, like mass transportation and pollution reduction, have societal benefits but not necessarily financial ones, and the private sector simply won’t undertake them. And while many other kinds of investments do bring big financial returns, only a fraction of those returns go to the original investor. This makes the private sector reluctant to jump in. As a result, economists say that the private sector tends to spend less on research and investment than is economically ideal.

Historically, the government has stepped into the void. It helped create new industries with its investments. Economic growth has many causes, including demographics and some forces that economists admit they don’t understand. But government investment seems to have one of the best track records of lifting growth. In the 1950s and ’60s, the G.I. Bill created a generation of college graduates, while the Interstate System of highways made the entire economy more productive. Later, the Defense Department developed the Internet, which spawned AOL, Google and the rest. The late ’90s Internet boom was the only sustained period in the last 35 years when the economy grew at 4 percent a year. It was also the only time in the past 35 years when the incomes of the poor and the middle class rose at a healthy pace. Growth doesn’t ensure rising living standards for everyone, but it sure helps.

Even so, the idea that the government would be playing a much larger role in promoting economic growth would have sounded radical, even among Democrats, until just a few months ago. After all, the European countries that have tried guiding huge swaths of their economies — that have kept their arms around the “commanding heights,” in Lenin’s enduring phrase — have grown even more slowly than this country in recent years. But the credit crunch and the deepening recession have changed the discussion here. The federal government seems as if it was doing too little to take advantage of the American economy’s enormous assets: its size, its openness and its mobile, risk-taking work force. The government is also one of the few large entities today able to borrow at a low interest rate. It alone can raise the capital that could transform the economy in the kind of fundamental ways that Olson described.

“This recession is a critical economic problem — it is a crisis,” Summers told me recently. “But a moment when there are millions of people who are unemployed, when the federal government can borrow money over the long term at under 3 percent and when we face long-run fiscal problems is also a moment of great opportunity to make investments in the future of the country that have lagged for a long time.”

He then told a story that John F. Kennedy liked to tell, about an early-20th-century French marshal named Hubert Lyautey. “The guy says to his gardener, ‘Could you plant a tree?’ ” Summers said. “The gardener says, ‘Come on, it’s going to take 50 years before you see anything out of that tree.’ The guy says, ‘It’s going to take 50 years? Really? Then plant it this morning.’ ”


THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION’S FIRST CHANCE to build a new economy — an investment economy — is the stimulus package that has been dominating policy discussions in Washington. Obama has repeatedly said he wants it to be a down payment on solving bigger problems. The twin goals, he said recently, are to “immediately jump-start job creation and long-term growth.” But it is not easy to balance those goals.

For the bill to provide effective stimulus, it simply has to spend money — quickly. Employing people to dig ditches and fill them up again would qualify. So would any of the “shovel ready” projects that have made it onto the list of stimulus possibilities. Even the construction of a mob museum in Las Vegas, a project that was crossed off the list after Republicans mocked it, would work to stimulate the economy, so long as ground was broken soon. Pork and stimulus aren’t mutually exclusive. But pork won’t transform an economy. Neither will the tax cuts that are likely to be in the plan.

Sometimes a project can give an economy a lift and also lead to transformation, but sometimes the goals are at odds, at least in the short term. Nothing demonstrates this quandary quite so well as green jobs, which are often cited as the single best hope for driving the post-bubble economy. Obama himself makes this case. Consumer spending has been the economic engine of the past two decades, he has said. Alternative energy will supposedly be the engine of the future — a way to save the planet, reduce the amount of money flowing to hostile oil-producing countries and revive the American economy, all at once. Put in these terms, green jobs sounds like a free lunch.

Green jobs can certainly provide stimulus. Obama’s proposal includes subsidies for companies that make wind turbines, solar power and other alternative energy sources, and these subsidies will create some jobs. But the subsidies will not be nearly enough to eliminate the gap between the cost of dirty, carbon-based energy and clean energy. Dirty-energy sources — oil, gas and coal — are cheap. That’s why we have become so dependent on them.

The only way to create huge numbers of clean-energy jobs would be to raise the cost of dirty-energy sources, as Obama’s proposed cap-and-trade carbon-reduction program would do, to make them more expensive than clean energy. This is where the green-jobs dream gets complicated.

For starters, of the $700 billion we spend each year on energy, more than half stays inside this country. It goes to coal companies or utilities here, not to Iran or Russia. If we begin to use less electricity, those utilities will cut jobs. Just as important, the current, relatively low price of energy allows other companies — manufacturers, retailers, even white-collar enterprises — to sell all sorts of things at a profit. Raising that cost would raise the cost of almost everything that businesses do. Some projects that would have been profitable to Boeing, Kroger or Microsoft in the current economy no longer will be. Jobs that would otherwise have been created won’t be. As Rob Stavins, a leading environmental economist, says, “Green jobs will, to some degree, displace other jobs.” Just think about what happened when gas prices began soaring last spring: sales of some hybrids increased, but vehicle sales fell overall.

None of this means that Obama’s climate policy is a mistake. Raising the price of carbon makes urgent sense, for the well-being of the planet and of the human race. And the economic costs of a serious climate policy are unlikely to be nearly as big as the alarmists — lobbyists and members of Congress trying to protect old-line energy industries — suggest. Various analyses of Obama’s cap-and-trade plan, including one by Stavins, suggest that after it is fully implemented, it would cost less than 1 percent of gross domestic product a year, or about $100 billion in today’s terms. That cost is entirely manageable. But it’s still a cost.

Or perhaps we should think of it as an investment. Like so much in the economy, our energy policy has been geared toward the short term. Inexpensive energy made daily life easier and less expensive for all of us. Building a green economy, on the other hand, will require some sacrifice. In the end, that sacrifice should pay a handsome return in the form of icecaps that don’t melt and droughts that don’t happen — events with costs of their own. Over time, the direct economic costs of a new energy policy may also fall. A cap-and-trade program will create incentives for the private sector to invest in alternative energy, which will lead to innovations and lower prices. Some of the new clean-energy spending, meanwhile, really will replace money now flowing overseas and create jobs here.

But all those benefits will come later. The costs will come sooner, which is a big reason we do not already have a green economy — or an investment economy.


WASHINGTON’S CHALLENGE on energy policy is to rewrite the rules so that the private sector can start building one of tomorrow’s big industries. On health care, the challenge is keeping one of tomorrow’s industries from growing too large.

For almost two decades, spending on health care grew rapidly, no matter what the rest of the economy was doing. Some of this is only natural. As a society gets richer and the basic comforts of life become commonplace, people will choose to spend more of their money on health and longevity instead of a third car or a fourth television.

Much of the increases in health care spending, however, are a result of government rules that have made the sector a fabulously — some say uniquely — inefficient sector. These inefficiencies have left the United States spending far more than other countries on medicine and, by many measures, getting worse results. The costs of health care are now so large that it has become one problem that cannot be solved by growth alone. It’s qualitatively different from the other budget problems facing the government, like the Wall Street bailout, the stimulus, the war in Iraq or Social Security.

You can see that by looking at various costs as a share of one year of economic output — that is, gross domestic product. Surprisingly, the debt that the federal government has already accumulated doesn’t present much of a problem. It is equal to about $6 trillion, or 40 percent of G.D.P., a level that is slightly lower than the average of the past six decades. The bailout, the stimulus and the rest of the deficits over the next two years will probably add about 15 percent of G.D.P. to the debt. That will take debt to almost 60 percent, which is above its long-term average but well below the levels of the 1950s. But the unfinanced parts of Medicare, the spending that the government has promised over and above the taxes it will collect in the coming decades requires another decimal place. They are equal to more than 200 percent of current G.D.P.

During the campaign, Obama talked about the need to control medical costs and mentioned a few ideas for doing so, but he rarely lingered on the topic. He spent more time talking about expanding health-insurance coverage, which would raise the government’s bill. After the election, however, when time came to name a budget director, Obama sent a different message. He appointed Peter Orszag, who over the last two years has become one of the country’s leading experts on the looming budget mess that is health care.

Orszag is a tall, 40-year-old Massachusetts native, made taller by his preference for cowboy boots, who has risen through the Democratic policy ranks over the last 15 years. He received a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, later joined the Clinton White House and, from 2007, was the director of the Congressional Budget Office. While there, he devoted himself to studying health care, believing that it was far more important to the future of the budget than any other issue in front of Congress. He nearly doubled the number of health care analysts in the office, to 50. Obama highlighted this work when he announced Orszag’s appointment in November.

In Orszag’s final months on Capitol Hill, he specifically argued that health care reform should not wait until the financial system has been fixed. “One of the blessings in the current environment is that we have significant capacity to expand and sell Treasury debt,” he told me recently. “If we didn’t have that, and if the financial markets didn’t have confidence that we would repay that debt, we would be in even more dire straits than we are.” Absent a health care overhaul, the federal government’s lenders around the world may eventually grow nervous about its ability to repay its debts. That, in turn, will cause them to demand higher interest rates to cover their risk when lending to the United States. Facing higher interest rates, the government won’t be able to afford the kind of loans needed to respond to a future crisis, be it financial or military. The higher rates will also depress economic growth, aggravating every other problem.

So what should be done? Orszag was technically prohibited from advocating policies in his old job. But it wasn’t very hard to read between the lines. In a series of speeches around the country, in testimony to Congress and in a blog that he started (“Director’s Blog”), he laid out a fairly clear agenda.

Orszag would begin his talks by explaining that the problem is not one of demographics but one of medicine. “It’s not primarily that we’re going to have more 85-year-olds,” he said during a September speech in California. “It’s primarily that each 85-year-old in the future will cost us a lot more than they cost us today.” The medical system will keep coming up with expensive new treatments, and Medicare will keep reimbursing them, even if they bring little benefit.

After this introduction, Orszag would typically pause and advise his audience not to get too depressed. He would put a map of the United States on the screen behind him, showing Medicare spending by region. The higher-spending regions were shaded darker than the lower-spending regions. Orszag would then explain that the variation cannot be explained by the health of the local population or the quality of care it receives. Darker areas didn’t necessarily have sicker residents than lighter areas, nor did those residents necessarily receive better care. So, Orszag suggested, the goal of reform doesn’t need to be remaking the American health care system in the image of, say, the Dutch system. The goal seems more attainable than that. It is remaking the system of a high-spending place, like southern New Jersey or Texas, in the image of a low-spending place, like Minnesota, New Mexico or Virginia.

To that end, Orszag has become intrigued by the work of Mitchell Seltzer, a hospital consultant in central New Jersey. Seltzer has collected large amounts of data from his clients on how various doctors treat patients, and his numbers present a very similar picture to the regional data. Seltzer told me that big-spending doctors typically explain their treatment by insisting they have sicker patients than their colleagues. In response he has made charts breaking down the costs of care into thin diagnostic categories, like “respiratory-system diagnosis with ventilator support, severity: 4,” in order to compare doctors who were treating the same ailment. The charts make the point clearly. Doctors who spent more — on extra tests or high-tech treatments, for instance — didn’t get better results than their more conservative colleagues. In many cases, patients of the aggressive doctors stay sicker longer and die sooner because of the risks that come with invasive care.

The first step toward turning “less efficient” doctors, in Seltzer’s euphemism, into “efficient” doctors would be relatively uncontroversial. The government would have to create a national version of his database and, to do so, would need doctors and hospitals to have electronic medical records. The Obama administration plans to use the stimulus bill to help pay for the installation of such systems. It is then likely to mandate that, within five years, any doctor or hospital receiving Medicare payment must be using electronic records.

The next steps will be harder. Based on what the data show, Medicare will have to stop reimbursing some expensive treatments that don’t do much good. Private insurers would likely follow Medicare’s lead, as they have on other issues in the past. Doctors, many of whom make good money from extra treatments, are sure to object, just as Mancur Olson would have predicted. They will claim that, whatever the data show, the treatments are benefiting their patients. In a few cases — though, by definition, not most — they may be right. Even when they are not, their patients, desperate for hope, may fight for the treatment.

The most pessimistic point that Orszag routinely made during his time on Capitol Hill was that the political system didn’t deal well with simmering, long-term problems. It often waited until those problems became a crisis, he would say. That may be a kind of corollary to Rahm’s Doctrine, but it does highlight the task before the Obama administration. It will need to figure out how it can use one crisis as an excuse to prevent several more.


A GREAT APPEAL of green jobs — or, for that matter, of a growing and efficient health care sector — is that they make it possible to imagine what tomorrow’s economy might look like. They are concrete. When somebody wonders, What will replace Wall Street? What will replace housing? they can be given an answer.

As answers go, green jobs and health care are fine. But they probably aren’t the best answers. The best one is less concrete. It also has a lot more historical evidence on its side.

Last year, two labor economists, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, published a book called “The Race Between Education and Technology.” It is as much a work of history — the history of education — as it is a work of economics. Goldin and Katz set out to answer the question of how much an education really matters. They are themselves products of public schools, she of New York and he of Los Angeles, and they have been a couple for two decades. They are liberals (Katz served as the chief economist under Robert Reich in Bill Clinton’s Labor Department), but their book has been praised by both the right and the left. “I read the Katz and Goldin book,” Matthew Slaughter, an associate dean of Dartmouth’s business school who was an economic adviser to George W. Bush, recently told me, “and there’s part of me that can’t fathom that half the presidential debates weren’t about a couple of facts in that book.” Summers wrote a blurb for the book, calling it “the definitive treatment” of income inequality.

The book’s central fact is that the United States has lost its once-wide lead in educational attainment. South Korea and Denmark graduate a larger share of their population from college — and Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom are close on our heels.

Goldin and Katz explain that the original purpose of American education was political, to educate the citizens of a democracy. By the start of the 20th century, though, the purpose had become blatantly economic. As parents saw that high-school graduates were getting most of the good jobs, they started a grass-roots movement, known as the high-school movement, to demand free, public high schools in their communities. “Middletown,” the classic 1929 sociological study of life in Indiana, reported that education “evokes the fervor of a religion, a means of salvation, among a large section of the population.”

At the time, some European intellectuals dismissed the new American high schools as wasteful. Instead of offering narrowly tailored apprentice programs, the United States was accused of overeducating its masses (or at least its white masses). But Goldin and Katz, digging into old population surveys, show that the American system paid huge dividends. High-school graduates filled the ranks of companies like General Electric and John Deere and used their broad base of skills to help their employers become global powers. And these new white-collar workers weren’t the only ones to benefit. A high-school education also paid off for blue-collar workers. Those with a diploma were far more likely to enter newer, better-paying, more technologically advanced industries. They became plumbers, jewelers, electricians, auto mechanics and railroad engineers.

Not only did mass education increase the size of the nation’s economic pie; it also evened out the distribution. The spread of high schools — by 1940, half of teenagers were getting a diploma — meant that graduates were no longer an elite group. In economic terms, their supply had increased, which meant that the wage premium that came with a diploma was now spread among a larger group of workers. Sure enough, inequality fell rapidly in the middle decades of the 20th century.

But then the great education boom petered out, starting in the late 1960s. The country’s worst high schools never got their graduation rates close to 100 percent, while many of the fast-growing community colleges and public colleges, which were educating middle-class and poorer students, had low graduation rates. Between the early 1950s and early ’80s, the share of young adults receiving a bachelor’s degree jumped to 24 percent, from 7 percent. In the 30 years since, the share has only risen to 32 percent. Nearly all of the recent gains have come among women. For the first time on record, young men in the last couple of decades haven’t been much more educated than their fathers were.

Goldin and Katz are careful to say that economic growth is not simply a matter of investing in education. And we can all name exceptions to the general rule. Bill Gates dropped out of college (though, as Malcolm Gladwell explains in his recent book, “Outliers,” Gates received a fabulously intense computer-programming education while in high school). Some college graduates struggle to make a good living, and many will lose their jobs in this recession. But these are exceptions. Goldin’s and Katz’s thesis is that the 20th century was the American century in large part because this country led the world in education. The last 30 years, when educational gains slowed markedly, have been years of slower growth and rising inequality.

Their argument happens to be supported by a rich body of economic literature that didn’t even make it into the book. More-educated people are healthier, live longer and, of course, make more money. Countries that educate more of their citizens tend to grow faster than similar countries that do not. The same is true of states and regions within this country. Crucially, the income gains tend to come after the education gains. What distinguishes thriving Boston from the other struggling cities of New England? Part of the answer is the relative share of children who graduate from college. The two most affluent immigrant groups in modern America — Asian-Americans and Jews — are also the most educated. In recent decades, as the educational attainment of men has stagnated, so have their wages. The median male worker is roughly as educated as he was 30 years ago and makes roughly the same in hourly pay. The median female worker is far more educated than she was 30 years ago and makes 30 percent more than she did then.

There really is no mystery about why education would be the lifeblood of economic growth. On the most basic level, education helps people figure out how to make objects and accomplish tasks more efficiently. It allows companies to make complex products that the rest of the world wants to buy and thus creates high-wage jobs. Education may not be as tangible as green jobs. But it helps a society leverage every other investment it makes, be it in medicine, transportation or alternative energy. Education — educating more people and educating them better — appears to be the best single bet that a society can make.

Fortunately, we know much more than we did even a decade ago about how education works and doesn’t work. In his book, “Whatever It Takes,” (and in this magazine, where he is an editor), Paul Tough has described some of the most successful schools for poor and minority students. These schools tend to set rigorous standards, keep the students in school longer and create a disciplined, can-do culture. Many of the schools, like several middle schools run by an organization called KIPP, have had terrific results. Students enter with test scores below the national average. They leave on a path to college.

The lessons of KIPP — some of the lessons, at least — also apply to schools that are not so poor. Last year, the Gates Foundation hired an economist named Thomas Kane to oversee a big new push to prepare students for college. Kane is one of the researchers whose work shows that teachers may matter more than anything else. Good teachers tend to receive high marks from parents, colleagues and principals, and they tend to teach their students much more than average teachers. Bad teachers tend to do poorly on all these metrics. The differences are usually apparent after just a couple of years on the job. Yet in a typical school system, both groups receive tenure.

The Obama administration has suggested that education reform is an important goal. The education secretary is Arne Duncan, the former school superintendent in Chicago, who pushed for education changes there based on empirical data. Obama advisers say that the administration plans to use the education money in the stimulus package as leverage. States that reward good teaching and use uniform testing standards — rather than the choose-your-own-yardstick approach of the No Child Left Behind law — may get more money.

But it is still unclear just how much of a push the administration will make. With the financial crisis looming so large, something as sprawling and perennially plagued as education can seem like a sideshow. Given everything else on its agenda, the Obama administration could end up financing a few promising pilot programs without actually changing much. States, for their part, will be cutting education spending to balance their budgets.

A few weeks ago, I drove to Shepherd University in West Virginia to get a glimpse of both the good and bad news for education. Shepherd is the kind of public college that will need to be at the center of any effort to improve higher education. Located in a small town in the Shenandoah Valley, it attracts mostly middle-class students — from the actual middle class, not the upper middle class — and it has a graduation rate of about 35 percent.

Several years ago, the state of West Virginia started a scholarship program, called Promise, in part to lift the graduation rate at places like Shepherd. The program is modeled after those in several Southern states, in which any high-school student with a certain minimum grade-point average (often 3.0) and certain SAT scores gets a hefty scholarship to any state school. When West Virginia officials were designing their program, though, they noticed a flaw with the other programs. The students weren’t required to take a course load that was big enough to let them graduate in four years. In some cases they were required to keep a minimum grade-point average, which encouraged them, perversely, to take fewer courses. Many students drifted along for a few years and then dropped out.

So West Virginia changed the rules. It offered a bigger carrot — free tuition at any public college — but also a stick. Students had to take enough courses each semester so that they could graduate in four years. Judith Scott-Clayton, a young economist who analyzed the program, concluded that it had raised the on-time graduation rate by almost 7 percentage points in a state where many colleges have a graduation rate below 50 percent.

Given those results, the Promise scholarship might seem like an ideal public policy in a deep recession. It pays for school at a time when many families are struggling. It keeps students busy when jobs are hard to come by. It also has the potential to do some long-term good. But nearly everyone I interviewed in West Virginia — the students, the president of Shepherd and other education officials — worried that financing would be reduced soon. The program is expensive, and state revenue is declining. Something has to give.


WHAT STRUCK ME ABOUT the Shepherd students I met was that they didn’t seem to spend much time thinking about the credit requirement. It had become part of their reality. Many college students today assume they will not graduate in four years. Some even refer to themselves as second- or third-years, instead of sophomores or juniors. “It’s just normal all around not to be done in four years,” Chelsea Carter, a Shepherd student, told me. “People don’t push you.” Carter, in fact, introduced herself to me as a third-year. But she is also a Promise scholar, and she said she expected to graduate in four years. Her younger sister, now in her first year in the program at Shepherd, also plans to graduate in four years. For many Promise scholars, graduating on time has become the norm.

Economists don’t talk much about cultural norms. They prefer to emphasize prices, taxes and other incentives. And the transformation of the American economy will depend very much on such incentives: financial aid, Medicare reimbursements, energy prices and marginal tax rates. But it will also depend on forces that aren’t quite so easy to quantify.

Orszag, on his barnstorming tour to talk about the health care system, argued that his fellow economists were making a mistake by paying so little attention to norms. After all, doctors in Minnesota don’t work under a different Medicare system than doctors in New Jersey. But they do act differently.

The norms of the last two decades or so — consume before invest; worry about the short term, not the long term — have been more than just a reflection of the economy. They have also affected the economy. Chief executives have fought for paychecks that their predecessors would have considered obscenely large. Technocrats inside Washington’s regulatory agencies, after listening to their bosses talk endlessly about the dangers of overregulation, made quite sure that they weren’t regulating too much. Financial engineering became a more appealing career track than actual engineering or science. In one of the small gems in their book, Goldin and Katz write that towns and cities with a large elderly population once devoted a higher-than-average share of their taxes to schools. Apparently, age made them see the benefits of education. In recent decades, though, the relationship switched. Older towns spent less than average on schools. You can imagine voters in these places asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?”

By any standard, the Obama administration faces an imposing economic to-do list. It will try to end the financial crisis and recession as quickly as possible, even as it starts work on an agenda that will inspire opposition from a murderers’ row of interest groups: Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Coal, the American Medical Association and teachers’ unions. Some items on the agenda will fail.

But the same was true of the New Deal and the decades after World War II, the period that is obviously the model for the Obama years. Roosevelt and Truman both failed to pass universal health insurance or even a program like Medicare. Yet the successes of those years — Social Security, the highway system, the G.I. Bill, the National Science Foundation, the National Labor Relations Board — had a huge effect on the culture.

The American economy didn’t simply grow rapidly in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. It grew rapidly and gave an increasing share of its bounty to the vast middle class. Middle-class incomes soared during those years, while income growth at the very top of the ladder, which had been so great in the 1920s, slowed down. The effects were too great to be explained by a neat package of policies, just as the last few decades can’t be explained only by education, investment and the like.

When Washington sets out to rewrite the rules for the economy, it can pass new laws and shift money from one program to another. But the effects of those changes are not likely to be merely the obvious ones. The changes can also send signals. They can influence millions of individual decisions — about the schools people attend, the jobs they choose, the medical care they request — and, in the process, reshape the economy.

David Leonhardt is an economics columnist for The Times and a staff writer for the magazine.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

1 comment:

Susan Chan said...

Regarding David Leonhardt’s “The Big Fix”. How is it possible to discuss fixing the US economy without discussing its place in the global economy?

This is now a global crisis. As Obama said (if not yet fully acted on) - a global crisis needs a global solution.

Keynes would have agreed. But commentators like Leonhardt ignore this. More international political leaders (e.g. Gordon Brown and now even Angela Merkel) have picked up the importance of international cooperation in economic policy (which Markwell’s account shows was crucial to Keynes) than US economists have.

Maybe this reflects the elimination of genuine understanding of Keynes among US economists since the 1970s?