An entrepreneurial culture and the rule of law have nourished the nation’s economic dynamism.
Worry over America’s recent economic stagnation, however justified, shouldn’t obscure the fact that the American economy remains Number One in the world. The United States holds 4.5 percent of the world’s population but produces a staggering 22 percent of the world’s output—a fraction that has remained fairly stable for two decades, despite growing competition from emerging countries. Not only is the American economy the biggest in absolute terms, with a GDP twice the size of China’s; it’s also near the top in per-capita income, currently a bit over $48,000 per year. Only a few small countries blessed with abundant natural resources or a concentration of financial services, such as Norway and Luxembourg, can claim higher averages.
America’s predominance isn’t new; indeed, it has existed since the early nineteenth century. But where did it come from? And is it in danger of disappearing?
By the 1830s, the late British economist Angus Maddison showed, American per-capita income was already the highest in the world. One might suppose that the nation could thank its geographical size and abundance of natural resources for its remarkable wealth. Yet other countries in the nineteenth century—Brazil is a good example—had profuse resources and vast territories but failed to turn them to comparable economic advantage.
A major reason that they failed to compete was their lack of strong intellectual property rights. The U.S. Constitution, by contrast, was the first in history to protect intellectual property rights: it empowered Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” As Thomas Jefferson, who became the first commissioner of the patent office, observed, the absence of accumulated wealth in the new nation meant that its most important economic resource was innovation—and America’s laws encouraged that innovation from the outset. Over two centuries later, the United States has more patents in force—1.8 million—than any other nation (Japan, with 1.2 million, holds second place). America is also the leader in “triadic patents” (that is, those filed in the United States, Europe, and Asia) registered every year—with 13,715 in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, ahead of Japan’s 13,322 and Germany’s 5,764.
Another reason for early American prosperity was that the scarcity of population in a vast territory had pushed labor costs up from the very beginning of the colonial era. By the early nineteenth century, American wages were significantly higher than those in Europe. This meant that landowners, to make a profit, needed high levels of productivity—and that, in turn, meant the mechanization of agriculture, which got under way in America before it did overseas.
The replacement of labor with capital investment helped usher in the American industrial revolution, as the first industrial entrepreneurs took advantage of engineering advances developed in the fields. The southern states made a great economic as well as moral error in deciding to keep exploiting slaves instead of hiring well-paid workers and embracing new engineering technologies. The South started to catch up with the rest of the nation economically only after turning fully to advanced engineering in the 1960s as a response to rising labor costs.
1 November 2012
The optimistic sage who wrote The Audacity of Hope is pushing a program of despair, and American voters are catching on. As President Obama struggles in the polls, the country is ever more alive to the gulf between his uplifting rhetoric and the gloomy pessimism of his policies. That’s why the president would rather talk about just about anything these days other than his governing philosophy.
On the campaign trail, President Obama talks about Mitt Romney’s tax proposals, Mitt Romney’s investments, Mitt Romney’s binders, Mitt Romney’s dog. But when it comes to his own thinking, he is curiously laconic, and confines himself to slogans and platitudes. Occasionally, however, the mask slips, and the president tells us what he actually believes…