By DAVID BROOKS
Published: September 9, 2010
Most people who lived in the year 1800 were scarcely richer than people who lived in the year 100,000 B.C. Their diets were no better. They were no taller, and they did not live longer.
Then, sometime around 1800, economic growth took off — in Britain first, then elsewhere. How did this growth start? In his book “The Enlightened Economy,” Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University argues that the crucial change happened in people’s minds. Because of a series of cultural shifts, technicians started taking scientific knowledge and putting it to practical use. For example, entrepreneurs applied geological research to the businesses of mining and transportation.
Britain soon dominated the world. But then it declined. Again, the crucial change was in people’s minds. As the historian Correlli Barnett chronicled, the great-great-grandchildren of the empire builders withdrew from commerce, tried to rise above practical knowledge and had more genteel attitudes about how to live.
This history is relevant today because 65 percent of Americans believe their nation is now in decline, according to this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. And it is true: Today’s economic problems are structural, not cyclical. We are in the middle of yet another jobless recovery. Wages have been lagging for decades. Our labor market woes are deep and intractable.
The first lesson from the economic historians is that we should try to understand our situation by looking for shifts in ideas and values, not just material changes. Furthermore, most fundamental economic pivot points are poorly understood by people at the time.
If you look at America from this perspective, you do see something akin to the “British disease.” After decades of affluence, the U.S. has drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.
The shift is evident at all levels of society. First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.
It would be embarrassing or at least countercultural for an Ivy League grad to go to Akron and work for a small manufacturing company. By contrast, in 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard graduates and 43 percent of female graduates went into finance and consulting.
The shift away from commercial values has been expressed well by Michelle Obama in a series of speeches. “Don’t go into corporate America,” she told a group of women in Ohio. “You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. … Make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry.” As talented people adopt those priorities, America may become more humane, but it will be less prosperous.
Then there’s the middle class. The emergence of a service economy created a large population of junior and midlevel office workers. These white-collar workers absorbed their lifestyle standards from the Huxtable family of “The Cosby Show,” not the Kramden family of “The Honeymooners.” As these information workers tried to build lifestyles that fit their station, consumption and debt levels soared. The trade deficit exploded. The economy adjusted to meet their demand — underinvesting in manufacturing and tradable goods and overinvesting in retail and housing.
These office workers did not want their children regressing back to the working class, so you saw an explosion of communications majors and a shortage of high-skill technical workers. One of the perversities of this recession is that as the unemployment rate has risen, the job vacancy rate has risen, too. Manufacturing firms can’t find skilled machinists. Narayana Kocherlakota of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank calculates that if we had a normal match between the skills workers possess and the skills employers require, then the unemployment rate would be 6.5 percent, not 9.6 percent.
There are several factors contributing to this mismatch (people are finding it hard to sell their homes and move to new opportunities), but one problem is that we have too many mortgage brokers and not enough mechanics.
Finally, there’s the lower class. The problem here is social breakdown. Something like a quarter to a third of American children are living with one or no parents, in chaotic neighborhoods with failing schools. A gigantic slice of America’s human capital is vastly underused, and it has been that way for a generation.
Personally, I’m not convinced we’re in decline. There are strengths to counter these weaknesses. But the value shifts are real. Up and down society, people are moving away from commercial, productive activities and toward pleasant, enlightened but less productive ones.
We can get distracted by short-term stimulus debates, but those are irrelevant by now. The real issues are whether the United States is content with gentility shift and whether there is anything that can be done about it in any case.