Thursday, July 15, 2010

The erosion of American competitive advantage

The news flash came across my desk: China's leading credit agency downgrades the US, Britain and France from AAA. This news is undoubtedly a sign of things to come. The question is, can America retain its status as a leading economic power?

The news is grim. I have written before about the analytical framework of deficit reduction. That kind of macroeconomic adjustment is only effective if Americans retain their underlying competitive advantage. John Hussman wrote this week that the basis of American competitive advantage rests on superior physical capital and human capital [emphasis added]:
The main source of this difference in productivity is that U.S. workers have a substantially larger stock of productive capital per worker, as well as generally higher levels of educational attainment, which is a form of human capital. This relative abundance of physical and educational capital has been a driver of U.S. prosperity for generations. Neither advantage in capital, however, is intrinsic to American workers, and it will be impossible to prevent a long-term convergence of U.S. wages toward those of developing countries unless the U.S. efficiently allocates its resources to productive investment and educational quality. This is where our policy makers are failing us.
The US is squandering its lead on both fronts. Instead of investing on productive physical capital, we have seen excessive malinvestment leading to bubbles in technology, real estate and finance over the past couple of decades. The internet and real estate bubbles were plain to see.

As for finance, what does all of the malinvestment of human talent into Wall Street say to the world? Despite the ineffectual efforts at financial regulation, American remain in denial about the role of finance in society. The news of the Alan Greenspan chair at NYU is just another sign of denial.

‘Nuff said.

Trouble in higher education
In addition, there seems to be signs of trouble in higher education, which is a key driver of the productiveness of human capital.

Firstly, the lead in education isn't what it used to be. A recent study concluded that elite universities are eroding their competitive edge. I had blogged about a Tiananmen Square protester returning to China for the sake of his children because of the lower quality the Canadian education system, which from first hand-experience equivalent or slightly higher quality than the American system.

As well, the cost of a university education is spiraling out of control. Consider Rolfe Winkler’s comments:

The market for college education looks a lot like the market for houses circa 2006 – very bubbly. And the reason is similar: There is too much credit.

Colleges can keep raising prices, despite the recession, because the government keeps lending students more money to pay them.
Rising prices and ample credit to finance purchase – does that sound like anything we saw before, such as the housing market? Carpe Diem shows this chart to illustrate how fast prices have been rising and went on to warn of a bubble in higher education:

Malinvestment in physical capital and failing human capital...there will a time to pay the piper and that day may be coming sooner than anyone expects.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I have read many an article in the past about how war has been an effective means of recovery from a financial crisis. I read the table with interest, but note an error init. For the Black Monday crisis of 1987 the war that is often related to that crisis was the I Gulf War. The error the US made in that instance was they did not pay enough for the war. Instead they got the Saudis etc to pay the bulk of the costs. Therefore defeating (some would argue) the whole premise if going to war to get ones country out of a a financial crisis.
Just a thought