Wall Street Opinion Journal Edmund S. Phelps February 12, 2007
Why European economies lag behind the U.S.
The nations of Continental Western Europe, in the reforms they make to try to raise their economic performance, may prove to be a testing ground for the view that culture matters for a society’s economic results.
As is increasingly admitted, the economic performance in nearly every Continental country is generally poor compared to the U.S. and a few other countries that share the U.S.’s characteristics. Productivity in the Continental Big Three–Germany, France and Italy–stopped gaining ground on the U.S. in the early 1990s, then lost ground as a result of recent slowdowns and the U.S. speed-up. Unemployment rates are generally far higher than those in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Ireland. And labor force participation rates have been lower for decades. Relatedly, the employee engagement and job satisfaction reported in surveys are mostly lower, too.
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In my thesis, the Continental economies’ root problem is a dearth of economic dynamism–loosely, the rate of commercially successful innovation. A country’s dynamism, being slow to change, is not measured by the growth rate over any short- or medium-length span. The level of dynamism is a matter of how fertile the country is in coming up with innovative ideas having prospects of profitability, how adept it is at identifying and nourishing the ideas with the best prospects, and how prepared it is in evaluating and trying out the new products and methods that are launched onto the market.
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Further, I argue that the cause of that dearth of dynamism lies in the sort of “economic model” found in most, if not all, of the Continental countries. A country’s economic model determines its economic dynamism. The dynamism that the economic model possesses is in turn a crucial determinant of the country’s economic performance: Where there is more entrepreneurial activity–and thus more innovation, as well as all the financial and managerial activity it leads to– there are more jobs to fill, and those added jobs are relatively engaging and fulfilling. Participation rises accordingly and productivity climbs to a higher path. Thus I see the sort of economic model operating in the Continental countries to be a major cause– perhaps the largest cause–of their lackluster performance characteristics.
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