Mighty Mississippi marches on. If you don’t live near it, you may never think of that wide, mighty river. You can relate this to the old sayings of Mark Twain. But every day, 24/7, it goes on.
Such is American capitalism. You can invent fables about how America is in an economic decline. You can rail against “neoliberalism”. But the American economy doesn’t care. It just keeps on going.
The Economist Magazine published a report On US economic performance over the last three decades. Using an avalanche of evidence and data, the main thrust of the article is that far from declining, US capitalism is dominating and accelerating.
In 1990, for example, the US had a per capita GDP comparable to that of Europe and Japan. But by 2022, America had gone ahead.
In 1990, the US economy accounted for 40 percent of the nominal GDP of the G7 countries. By 2022, the US share was 58 percent.
In 1990, American per capita income was 24 percent higher than per capita income in Western Europe. Today, it is about 30 percent higher.
The sources of this power are many. I was particularly struck by how much America invests in its own people. The US spends about 37 percent more per student on schooling than the average for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a collection of mostly wealthier peer nations. ChATGPT and mRNA vaccines are not the only signs of US technological prowess. The United States holds 22 percent of overseas patents in effect, up from 19 percent in 2004. This is more than any other country. Education levels are one reason why US labor productivity is expected to increase by 67 percent between 1990 and 2022, compared to 55 percent in Europe and 51 percent in Japan.
American companies continue to generate astonishing value. According to The Economist, if you had invested $100 in the S&P 500, an index of US companies in 1990, you would have about $2,300 today. If you had invested that $100 in an index of non-US rich-world stocks, you would have about $510 today.
Of course, China has achieved superpower status during these years. But it has not eclipsed American prominence. In 1990, the US economy accounted for about 25 percent of global GDP, with it still accounting for about 25 percent in 2022, The Economist found.
The mighty rolling river carries away new generations. The Millennial and Gen Z generations are practically defined by a story of economic hardship. Many people believe that future generations will not enjoy the same standard of living as their parents.
It may have been possible to tell that story accurately in the wake of the financial crisis, but as Jean Twenge shows In a new piece for The AtlanticToday it is not possible to tell that story exactly. She writes, “By 2019 households headed by millennials were making significantly more money than the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers and Generation X combined, after adjusting for inflation.”
Millennials’ household income was $9,000 higher than Gen X households and $10,000 higher than Boomer households of the same age in 2019 dollars, according to the Census Bureau.
Real estate costs are on the rise in many metro areas, but Twainz reports that 48 percent of Millennials aged 25 to 39 owned their own homes, almost the same rate as Boomers in that age group. Many Millennials bought their homes at a time of historically low interest rates and have seen their values increase during the pandemic. “Millennials have not been financially unlucky as homeowners,” Twenge concluded. “If anything, the opposite is true.”
I am not saying that American capitalism is perfect. My point is that there is a tension between economic mobility and economic security. For reasons deeply rooted in our culture, the American brand of capitalism has always been inclined toward dynamism with free markets and small welfare states.
But over the past several decades, Americans have experimented with ways to provide more security without throttle the capitalist turbo that produces growth and social mobility. This has been a great project of the center-left and center-right. It has worked and it continues to work.
Between 1990 and 2019, US social spending increased from 14 percent to 18 percent of GDP. partly because of this government support, poverty to reach an all-time low in 2021According to the Census Bureau.
In 2013, Thomas Piketty published a well-known book titled “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, which argued that rising inequality is an inherent feature of modern capitalism. The problem is, right around the publication of his book, inequality stopped growing, Economist Noah Smith notesAnd it seems to be reducing a bit now.
The American model of capitalism is under attack from the left, which protests against the perceived horrors of neoliberalism and globalization, and from Tucker Carlson-style populists, who often regard American capitalism as a great betrayal. But it has proven to be better than all the alternatives in the real world.
Actually, I’m amazed. We have lived through a pathetic political era. The social fabric is crumbling in a thousand ways. But American capitalism rolls on.