December 13, 2018 3:35PM

Why Is the U.S. Economy Successful?

In a recent talk, my Harvard colleague Martin Feldstein posits ten answers:

divAn entrepreneurial culture. Individuals in the U.S. demonstrate a desire to start businesses and to grow them. There is little opprobrium in the U.S. for failing and starting again.

A financial system that supports entrepreneurship. The United States has a more developed system of equity finance than the countries of Europe, including angel investors who are willing to finance startups and a very active venture capital market that helps finance those firms as they grow. The U.S. also has a large decentralized banking system with more than 7,000 small banks that provide loans to entrepreneurs.

World‐​­‐​class research universities. Universities provide much of the basic research that drives high‐​­‐​tech entrepreneurship. Faculty members and doctoral students often spend time with nearby startups, and the culture of the universities and the businesses encourages this activity. Top research universities attract the best students from around the world, many of whom end up staying in the United States.

Efficient labor markets. U.S. labor markets link workers and jobs, unimpeded by labor unions, state owned industries and excessively restrictive labor regulations. Less than 7 percent of the private sector U.S. labor force is unionized, and there are virtually no state owned enterprises. While the U.S. does regulate working conditions and hiring, the rules are much less onerous than in Europe. As a result, workers have a better chance of finding the right job, firms find it easier to innovate, and new firms find it easier to get started and grow.

A population that is growing, including from immigration, and geographically mobile within the United States. America’s growing population means a younger and therefore more trainable and flexible workforce. Although there are restrictions on immigration to the United States, there are also special rules to provide access to the U.S. economy and a path to citizenship based on individual talent and industrial sponsorship. A separate “green card lottery” system provides a way for eager people to come to the United States. The country’s ability to attract qualified immigrants has been an important reason for its prosperity.

A culture and a tax system that encourage hard work and long hours. The average employee works 1,800 hours per year, substantially more than the 1,500 hours worked in France and the 1,400 hours worked in Germany (although not as much as the 2,200 hours in Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea.) In general, working longer hours means producing more and therefore means higher real incomes.

A supply of energy that makes North America energy independent. Natural gas fracking in particular has provided U.S. businesses with plentiful and relatively inexpensive energy.

A favorable regulatory environment. Although U.S. regulations are far from perfect, they are less burdensome on businesses than the regulations imposed by European countries and the European Union.

A smaller government than in other industrial countries. According to the OECD, outlays of the US governments at the federal, state and local levels totaled 38% of GDP while the corresponding figure was 44% in Germany, 51% in Italy and 57% in France. The higher level of government spending in in other countries implies not only a higher share of income taken in taxes but also higher transfer payments that reduce incentives to work.

A decentralized political system in which states and local governments compete.Competition among states and communities encourages entrepreneurship and work. States also compete for businesses and for individual residents with their legal rules and tax regimes. Some states have no income taxes and have labor laws that limit unionization. The United States is perhaps unique among major high‐​­‐ income nations in its degree of political decentralization.

divNote that most of these credit small government, directly or indirectly, for U.S. economic success. Government is bigger in the United States than libertarians would like; but overall, still better (i.e., smaller) than in most countries.