From the Wall Street Journal:
The Disappearing Recovery
Barack Obama, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have been performing an intricate scorpion dance over spending, taxes and the debt ceiling, premised on the belief that this is the deal that would ignite the recovery.
But what if it's too late? What if that first-quarter growth rate of 1.8% is a portent of the U.S.'s long-term future? What if below-normal U.S. GDP is, as the Obama folks like to say, the new normal?
Robert Lucas, the 1995 Nobel laureate in economics, has spent his career thinking about why economies grow, and in particular about the effect of policy making on growth. From his office at the University of Chicago, Prof. Lucas has been wondering, like the rest of us, why, if the recession officially ended in the first half of 2009, there hasn't been more growth in the U.S. economy. He's also been wondering why this delayed recovery resembles the long non-recovery years of the 1930s. And he has been thinking about the U.S. and Europe.
In May, Bob Lucas pulled his thoughts together and delivered them as the Milliman Lecture at the University of Washington, an exercise he described to me this week as "intelligent speculation."
Here is the lecture's provocative final thought: "Is it possible that by imitating European policies on labor markets, welfare and taxes, the U.S. has chosen a new, lower GDP trend? If so, it may be that the weak recovery we have had so far is all the recovery we will get."
The Obama-will-turn-us-into-Europe argument is a staple of the administration's critics. Prof. Lucas's intelligent speculation, however, carries the case beyond dinner-party carping.
The baseline reality for any discussion of where we're headed is that from 1870 to 2008, the U.S. economy has had average GDP productivity growth of about 3% and about 2% on a per-person basis. Despite displacements—wars, depressions—we've always returned to this solid upward trend. From 1870 till recently, real income per person has increased by a factor of 12—"an ongoing miracle," Prof. Lucas notes, "mainly due to free-market capitalism."
The Obama economists like to argue that this recession was the greatest meltdown since the Depression. Prof. Lucas agrees. Most recessions, he says, are not very important events. This one, though, has taken U.S. GDP almost 10% off its long-term growth trend. The only downturn comparable to this in the past century is the more than 30% decline during the Depression.
By the end of 2008, he notes, the primary storm of the financial panic was essentially over. We did get spending declines in GDP in that year's last quarter and in the first quarter of 2009. "But there is a world of difference," he says, "between two quarters of production declines and four years!" The persistence of growth 10 percentage points below its long-term trend line is troubling....MORE