Thursday, September 24, 2009

Revisiting Head to Head

Lester Thurow's book Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe and America (New York: Morrow, 1992, pp. 336) is perhaps the first serious book on economics and business I looked at, and reviewing it now is a powerful reminder of how different the last two decades have been from the expectations current then.

His book cast the first half of the 21st century as a three-way competition between economic quasi-blocs—the United States/NAFTA, a German-led European Community (which he pictured potentially stretching all the way to the Pacific as it incorporated the former Soviet Union, with the help of a Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe) and Japan-as the post-World War II GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) died.

His bet was on the EU because of the sheer size of its market, and the range of competencies it could bring to bear, though he also expected the U.S. to address many of the problems that the "declinists" of the 1980s and early 1990s (correctly) identified-deindustrialization, unsustainable trade deficits, the drag on the economy of a bloated and underperforming health care system, low educational standards and underinvestment in infrastructure-while the world economy went on to greater growth in the 1990-2030 period than it saw in the 1950-1990 era.

Instead of dying, GATT survived and flourished, becoming institutionalized in the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, China and India, which Thurow dismissed as certain to be of little importance in this period, emerged as economic heavyweights (though not without serious problems or obstacles in their paths). Japan stagnated in the 1990s, while Euroskeptics disdainful of the continent's way of doing business, despite a penchant for gross exaggerations (and outright intellectual dishonesty), found sufficient ammunition in the realities of the EU to flourish. (The disparity in GDP growth between continental Europe and the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s, for instance, virtually disappears when the figures are adjusted for higher U.S. population growth, the expenses of German reunification, and the greater outlays the U.S. makes for questionable results in areas like health care, for instance.) Certainly the idea of the EU launching a Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe seems wildly implausible in hindsight, and almost twenty years on, the inclusion of Russia in the organization seems remote.

Additionally, worldwide global economic growth has only continued to suffer, in the 1990s and 2000s running far below the levels seen in the 1960s, 1970s and perhaps even the 1980s, such weak growth as has occurred (which according to the calculations of Alan Freeman may have barely kept pace with population growth) unraveling in the economic contraction that has dominated business news these last two years.

This left the U.S., despite its failure to deal with the problems he identified (all of which have got worse in the view of most of those observers willing to acknowledge their existence), and its being no exception to the pattern of unimpressive growth rates for the period (excepting the now-long faded "tech" boom of the late 1990s) looking the winner, and the "Anglo-Saxon way" (in labor relations, for instance) appearing to be the only way.

Still, given the pieties of our times, Thurow seems refreshingly frank about the limits and failings of markets in theory and in practice, and of the weaknesses of the economic model favored by the U.S. (and Britain), while his observations about the deficiencies of the track on which the U.S. economy was clearly moving in the 1980s seem to have been validated by the problems it continues to face today. It is also well worth remembering that even if Germany and Japan have not performed as well as had been hoped earlier, they remain great industrial powers, and great exporting nations, as the U.S. continues heading in the opposite direction with its deindustrialization and ever-larger trade deficits. There can be little question that despite doing quite a few things wrong, they've also done quite a few right, and that the debate over the path to prosperity-reopened during the recent global contraction, but closing again fast as opinion-makers breathe sighs of relief-is nowhere near over.

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