In the May 30, 2011 issue of Time, Fareed Zakaria presented a compelling analysis of the causes of and solutions to the sorry state of the United States economy. Mr. Zakaria referee to a global recession and, almost simultaneously, made a case for the economic downturn being less than global. Data from an on-going study of leadership with participants from more than fifty countries supports statements by Mr. Zakaria that some countries and economic sectors have suffered less, if at all, during the so-called global recession than others. Leaders hoping to change the current course of the United States economy can learn from these other leaders.
Mr. Zakaria identified five areas for leaders’ attention: manufacturing, retraining, growth industries, small businesses, and immediate needs. Each of these areas is more discussed than acted upon by leaders in the United States. Leaders wring their hands over lost manufacturing jobs and take few effective steps to stimulate the technical, skilled manufacturing jobs that the United States can sustain and that are difficult to send offshore. Leaders have talked about retraining as essential to economic recovery for several decades, but the talk receives inadequate translation into policy and funding to prepare people who lost jobs for new positions in potentially new industries.
Healthcare, especially tourism related to healthcare, media production, and general tourism stand out for Mr. Zakaria as growth industries. While worthy of exploration and strategy development, other industries must have comparable potential. Leaders in the United States should convene public fora to stimulate thinking about and planning for new growth opportunities for the economy. Small businesses are well-known job stimulators. Leaders need to examine and, where possible, remove barriers to small business growth. At some point, perhaps the definition of small business needs to be stratified so that companies that employ ten or twenty people do not have to compete with companies employing several hundred people for small business set-asides.
Mr. Zakaria recognized the need to get people in the construction and housing sectors back to work. Housing, with apparently systemic or systematic problems with realistic valuation and demand, may not be addressable quickly. Infrastructure, on the other hand, with frequent mention of “shovel-ready” projects dating to at least 2008, should be straightforward for leaders willing and able to lead. Roads, bridges, airports, and other infrastructure elements are in obvious need of repair.
The United States taxpayers invested, or authorized through their representatives the investment of, approximately one trillion dollars, give or take a couple hundred billion, to stimulate the economy. Some day we may learn what stimulation actually occurred, if any, and be able to compare where the money went with where long-term gains might have been seen.