Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Eight Steps to Renew America's Economic Architecture

America is now coping with the debt binge of the past decade and stagnating incomes across the board. Trying to provide some cushion for those left economically behind may be a good short-term strategy. But policy makers also need to work toward a restructuring of America's economic architecture. Unless America's economic vitality is restored, all plans to reduce the weight of the national debt are moot. A perpetually failed American economy will lead to skyrocketing debt levels, an ever-diminished standard of living, and a weakening of the ability of the United States to project power across the globe.

To borrow a phrase from Governor Huntsman, America's "core" needs to be renewed. The economic renewal of this core would require the increase of America's skill level, the defense of American jobs, and the development of a regulatory structure that incentivizes production and innovation instead of gambling and borrowing.

In light of this project of renewal, here are some thoughts about big-picture goals to keep in mind for the restoration of America's economic architecture.

Regulate the financial system. Perhaps because it was bailed out with untold billions of dollars, Wall Street has been least hurt by the current recession. But deep structural problems remain. In the decade or so before the crash of 2008, many regulations that had been crucial to the nation's financial system had been repealed. Meanwhile, various government departments gave special privileges to numerous connected banking institutions. Our financial regulations give bankers and traders the capacity to be more reckless, and the history of bailouts and insider loans gives the appearance of a safety net, at least to the chosen few. So our financial system grows increasingly less stable. Regulations must be put in place so that, for individual banks, individual failure will not lead to the collapse of the whole banking system; too big to fail must go by the wayside. Bankers used to be renowned for their prudence and circumspection. It would be helpful to put in regulations encouraging that tradition.

Let energy multiply. Since the Industrial Revolution, cheap energy has been a bedrock of economic growth. Unlike President Obama, I do not believe that the government should aim to make energy prices skyrocket. One of the major accomplishments of probably the greatest Democratic president of the twentieth century---Franklin Delano Roosevelt---was to spread electricity across America, to the poor and rural classes, in order to improve the living standards of the nation as a whole. If Democrats want to surrender that legacy, Republicans should pick up the banner of cheap, egalitarian energy and run with it. Investment in energy infrastructure could be one of the greatest improvements in the American economic architecture---and that investment would include oil, nuclear, and alternative energies. Current proven US oil reserves will not be sufficient to meet all national demand for the long term, but the Congressional Research Service estimates that there could be over a hundred billion barrels more worth of oil that further exploration could reveal. Further exploration and innovation could discover even more resources. But drilling for more oil will not alone solve America's energy problems. Nuclear is most sustainable and massively scalable non-fossil fuel energy source we yet have in place in an expansive way, so investment in nuclear power plants would be an easy route to expand America's energy prospects. Solar, wind, and other energy sources are also worth investing in; some of these technologies are in the experimental stage, but the the normal of today was once the experimental of yesterday. Gains in efficiency are good, but the sweet spot of economic growth is found when improved efficiency meets cheaper energy.

Get a twenty-first-century trade policy. This isn't the 1990s anymore, when we could trust in a technological leap to compensate for other countries using neomercantilist strategies against us. "Tradeable jobs," often the most value-adding, have been pummeled in the US over the past decade or so. Unilateral trade disarmament in the face of other countries' neomercantilist tactics (currency manipulation, tariffs, regulations that de facto prohibit American-made products, and so forth) is not free trade. The past couple decades have shown the effects of this neomercantilism for the American workforce.

Get a twenty-first-century immigration policy. The current immigration paradigm was put in place almost fifty years ago, after a great lull in immigration and in a time of great prosperity and economic growth. This paradigm may need to be revised. Current immigration policy often rewards law-breaking and family connections. A revision of immigration policy could focus on increasing the skill level of the American workforce and improving the conditions of the the workers currently in the United States. We should work to make the US immigration system resemble Habsburgian dynastic politics less and instead push it in an egalitarian, skills-oriented direction. While prioritizing the minor children and spouses of immigrants, a revised system could move towards a basket of skills, refugees, and extended family members (with increased emphasis upon the "skills" portion).

Invest in the future. Despite propaganda to the contrary, government investment in science, technology, and distant innovations can actually work out. The nuclear age was greatly accelerated by government spending during World War II, advances in telecommunications are in part due to NASA, and early pioneers of the internet---one of the great drivers in growth over the past two decades---included government agencies and institutions backed by substantial government funding. In a time of economic turmoil, many large businesses are unlikely to invest in long-range projects that may never pay off; government investment can help redress that lack of funding for first-principles research. We cannot look for large institutions to provide all advances (much has been accomplished by a few lonely and talented individuals working on their own), but history has shown that some of that long-range spending can have dividends for decades in the future.

Revise the regulatory state. Many national regulations are economically onerous and often counterproductive. For example, many environmental laws put burdens on local manufacturers, even as our trade and tax policies encourage these very same manufacturers to ship their work out of the country (to nations with far fewer protections); it's hard to call such a result a win for the American economy or for the global environment. (I'm not here arguing against environmental regulations as such, but I am suggesting that we need to think of the broader implications of them and work to correct some of the negative results of these implications.) The 70s witnessed the acceleration of the dismantling of the New Deal regulatory state, but new layers of bureaucracy have taken its place. We must do what we can to ensure that projects (both private and public) of great vision and power can be advanced quickly.

Renew infrastructure.
Regulatory reform could also streamline and make more possible broad improvements to the American infrastructure. Much of the backbone of our infrastructure (highways, bridges, etc.) is in disrepair, and much (such as America's rail system) could also take the leap into the twenty-first century. In an era of new experiments with energy sources, updating and rendering more flexible our electricity grid and other energy delivery systems could have considerable gains for the future.

Revitalize health-care. Medicare's long-term trends may eventually break the federal bank, but the cost of health-care inefficiencies are being felt throughout the whole economy today. Americans pay a lot for health-care, far more than do the citizens of other industrialized nations. More needs to be done to increase the supply of medical care and push America's health-care system in the direction of a functioning market. Health-care is perhaps the section of the economy with the most government interference; it is also one of the most inefficient. The British National Health System shows that it is possible to provide some level of national coverage at relatively low cost through socialized medicine. The US could instead go in the direction of unleashing the power of the market to provide cheaper, better health-care; the current faux-market of health-care in the US is not working as well as it might. And unleashing the power of the market means far more than putting senior citizens on Medicare vouchers. It means tackling the lack of transparency in the field of medical spending, updating the insurance-financing system, allowing doctors to focus more on giving care than defending against frivolous lawsuits, taking on health-care oligarchical structures, and opening up the ranks of medical providers.

Obviously, these thoughts are partial and open to debate; they are more posed in an experimental tone than a dogmatic one. But experiment is often the first step on the path to success. If the GOP is to offer a true competing agenda to the policies of Barack Obama, it needs to move beyond a fixation on tax cuts to a broader emphasis on growth, job creation, the defense of the middle class, and structural renewal.

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