The Skills Deficit

BRUSSELS – Two years after the world economy suffered a nervous breakdown in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, global financial markets remain unsettled, and the recovery that started so vigorously in 2009 seems to be stalling.

The slowdown has predictably led to calls for further fiscal and monetary stimulus. The argument seems simple: only a massive dose of government spending and massive central-bank support for the financial system prevented a slide into a second Great Depression, so more of the same medicine is now needed to prevent a slide back into recession.

This argument seems particularly strong in the United States, which during the long boom years grew accustomed to unemployment rates of around 5% and steady growth in consumption. But, in assessing the outlook for the US economy, one should not compare low quarterly growth rates (the data for April-June are particularly disappointing) and the current unemployment rate of almost 10% to the “goldilocks” bubble period. A longer-term view is required, because the US is facing a structural-adjustment challenge that will be accompanied by high unemployment.

Like Southern Europe, the US economy must move away from the consumption/housing-led growth model of the last decade. President Barack Obama has encapsulated this challenge by setting the goal of doubling US exports over the next decade. But this is easier said than done.