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Why the Old Jobs Aren't Coming Back

Author: A. Michael Spence, Distinguished Visiting Fellow
June 24, 2011
Wall Street Journal

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Many have expressed shock at the recent U.S. employment data. But 9.1% unemployment shouldn't be a surprise. To address the jobs challenge, we must stop pretending that this is only a difficult cyclical recovery. The root of the problem is structural.

During the two decades before the crisis of 2008-09, the U.S. economy added 27 million jobs, primarily in government, health care, construction, retail and hospitality. This employment growth was almost all in the "nontradable" side of the economy--sectors generating goods and services that must be consumed where they are produced. But several factors will depress these sectors. Government budget woes, a likely leveling-out of the dramatic growth in health-care consumption, and a permanent reduction in domestic consumption as asset prices reset downward and debt-financed purchases are reduced, will all have effects in the short-to-medium term.

The "tradable" side of the economy (which includes exportable goods and services) has its own set of issues. While finance, consulting, computer design and managing complex international businesses all fueled job growth for 20 years, these gains were matched by declines in the manufacturing jobs held by the middle class. The very things that propped up our tradable sectors through the export market--high growth rates in emerging economies and a more educated consumer class in those countries--have challenged middle-class U.S. employees on the job front. Emerging markets are now increasingly moving up the value chain with improved skills, and it's likely that higher-paying jobs--including design and even product development--will move abroad in ever greater numbers.

Multinational companies have benefited from these global supply-chain opportunities and from growing emerging-economy markets, but the effects for the U.S. have been mixed. Growth may be coming back slowly, but it is not bringing jobs with it.

A stimulus package that temporarily restores elements of precrisis demand is unlikely to generate the escape velocity needed to get out of the jobs hole. Nontradable job growth can't mask the declines in the tradable sector any more. The structural problem demands a structural answer.

Rebuilding the employment engine requires shifts in policy and process. On the policy side, we must expand the scope of the tradable sector. A short list of steps would include investments in infrastructure and education reform that emphasizes teaching productive skills, for example in advanced manufacturing sectors. Tax reform should aim for simplification and the elimination of biases against domestic investment for our multinational firms. It should also aim to help raise savings rates so we can finance our own investment. A value-added tax with an exemption for exports would enhance competitiveness. An energy policy focused on efficiency and security would create opportunities for investment and growth.

In terms of process, business, government and labor must identify what each has to offer and needs to help expand the tradable sector. What will it take to keep more jobs in the U.S.? We might have to accept a period of lower income growth in order to restore competitiveness.

A useful model is Germany, which limited wage and salary growth as part of a restructuring in the period 2000-05, allowing it to compete more effectively in exports and the tradable sector than other advanced countries.

In addition, a broad public-private investment in advanced manufacturing and in energy- efficiency technologies can advance relatively high-income, capital-intensive job creation. Government co-investment can lower the private sector's cost and expand the employability of domestic citizens in the tradable sector.

These structural solutions won't work, of course, without a plan to restore fiscal balance. A sovereign-debt crisis will abort any recovery. Right now, however, the policy discussion oscillates between balancing the budget and supporting a fragile economic recovery--mixed with puzzlement that employment figures are disobeying the rules of a normal cyclical recovery. Having a credible five-year fiscal plan would help avoid an excessively rapid withdrawal of government expenditure and investment from the demand side of the economy.

Can business, government, educators and labor come together to tackle the structural employment challenge head-on? Some will say that in the present political and fiscal climate, this is highly unlikely. They may be right. But it is a choice, a collective choice. We can invest in future growth and employment of an inclusive kind, or not. If we do, it will take significant shared sacrifice.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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