America’s economy is certainly in a tender state. But the pessimism of the presidential slanging-match misses something vital. Led by its inventive private sector, the economy is remaking itself (see article). Old weaknesses are being remedied and new strengths discovered, with an agility that has much to teach stagnant Europe and dirigiste Asia.
America’s sluggishness stems above all from pre-crisis excesses and the misshapen economy they created. Until 2008 growth relied too heavily on consumer spending and house-buying, both of them financed by foreign savings channelled through an undercapitalised financial system. Household debt, already nearly 100% of income in 2000, reached 133% in 2007. Recoveries from debt-driven busts always take years, as households and banks repair their balance-sheets.
Nonetheless, in the past three years that repair has proceeded fast. America’s houses are now among the world’s most undervalued. Consumers have cut back, too: debts are now 114% of income.
New strengths have also been found. One is a more dynamic export sector. The weaker dollar helps explain why the trade deficit has shrunk from 6% of GDP in 2006 to about 4% today. But other, more permanent, shifts—especially the growth of a consuming class in emerging markets—augur well. On the campaign trail, both parties attack China as a currency-fiddling, rule-breaking supplier of cheap imports (see Lexington). But a richer China has become the third-largest market for America’s exports, up 53% since 2007.
And American exporters are changing. Some of the products—Boeing jets, Microsoft software and Hollywood films—are familiar. But there is a boom, too, in high-value services (architecture, engineering and finance) and a growing “app economy”, nurtured by Facebook, Apple and Google, which employs more than 300,000 people; its games, virtual merchandise and so on sell effortlessly across borders. Constrained by weakness at home and in Europe, even small companies are seeking a toehold in emerging markets. American manufacturers are recapturing some markets once lost to imports, and pioneering new processes such as 3D printing.
Meanwhile, what was once an Achilles heel is becoming a competitive advantage. America has paid dearly for its addiction to imported oil. Whenever West Texas Intermediate climbs above $100 per barrel (as it did in 2008, last year and again this year), growth suffers. But high prices have had an effect, restraining demand and stimulating supply. Net imports of oil this year are on track to be the lowest since 1995, and America should eventually become a net exporter of gas.
America’s work-out is not finished. Even when the results are more visible, it will leave many problems unsolved. Because the companies leading the process are so productive, they pay high wages but do not employ many people. They may thus do little to reduce unemployment, while aggravating inequality. Yet this is still a more balanced and sustainable basis for growth than what America had before—and a far better platform for prosperity than unreformed, elderly Europe.
What should the next president do to generate muscle in this new economy? First, do no harm. Not driving the economy over the fiscal cliff would be a start: instead, settle on a credible long-term deficit plan that includes both tax rises and cuts to entitlement programmes. There are other madnesses brewing. Some Democrats want to restrict exports of natural gas to hold down the price for domestic consumers—a brilliant strategy to discourage domestic investment and production. A braver Mr Obama would expedite approval of gas exports. For his part, Mr Romney should back off his promise to brand China a currency manipulator, an invitation to a trade war.
Second, the next president should fix America’s ramshackle public services. Even the most productive start-ups cannot help an economy held back by dilapidated roads, the world’s most expensive health system, underachieving union-dominated schools and a Byzantine immigration system that deprives companies of the world’s best talent. Focus on those things, Mr Obama and Mr Romney, and you will be surprised what America’s private sector can do for itself.