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America is becoming a less attractive place to do business




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This time it’s serious

Feb 18th 2012 | from the print edition

IS AMERICA fading? It seems an odd thing to say about a country that so dominates the industries of the future. Where else could Facebook have grown from a student prank to a $100 billion company in less than a decade? America has been gripped by worries about decline before, notably in the 1970s. But this time it may be serious.

There is little doubt that other countries are catching up. Between 1999 and 2009 America’s share of world exports fell in almost every industry: by 36 percentage points in aerospace, nine in information technology, eight in communications equipment and three in cars. Some loss of market share is inevitable as China and other economies emerge. But even in absolute terms, there is cause for worry. Private-sector job growth has slowed dramatically, and come to a halt in industries that are exposed to global competition. Median annual income grew by an anaemic 2% between 1990 and 2010.

The March issue of the Harvard Business Review is devoted to “American competitiveness” (by which it means the country’s ability to improve productivity and living standards). A gaggle of gurus delivers a harsh verdict. “The US government is failing to tackle weaknesses in the business environment that are making the country a less attractive place to invest and [is] nullifying some of America’s most important competitive strengths.”

 

This relative deterioration in America’s business climate has coincided with a spectacular rise in the incomes. The proportion of the total pay of senior managers that is based on stock rose from 20% in 1990 to 70% in 2007. The same cannot be said about politics.

For all this gloom, the Review’s gurus argue that, as Bill Clinton said in his first inaugural address, there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America. The country has huge strengths, from its world-beating universities to its tolerance of risk-taking.

 


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