Long-Term Growth of the U.S. Economy: Significance, Determinants, and Policy
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
The rate of long-term economic growth is the salient measure of the nation’s ability to steadily
advance its material living standard. The pace of long-term economic growth is likely to be a
center of attention in the decades just ahead, as the U.S. economy confronts the need to undertake
unprecedentedly large generational transfers of income to pay for the retirement of the huge baby-
boom generation as well as large transfers to the rest of the world to meet the debt service costs of
the United States’ large and still growing foreign debt.
For the United States, the long-term growth of real GDP per-capita over the last 125 years has
revealed remarkable steadiness, advancing decade after decade with only modest and temporary
variation from a trend annual average rate of growth of 1.8%. Overall, the limited variability of
the rate of U.S. long-term growth, despite major changes in economic conditions, as well as
economic and social policies, suggests that U.S. long-term growth may be governed by forces
other than typical economic variables and may not be easy to alter with conventional economic
policy. Nevertheless, the evidence of some degree of medium-term variability suggests the
possibility of using economic policy to exert some influence. It is important to recognize that
even relatively small differences in the rate of economic growth will steadily cumulate to have
large effects on the scale of improvement in future living standards. Such an improvement would
make the burden of future transfers on workers less onerous.
Given a supporting social infrastructure that encourages and enables production of goods and
services, economic theory and evidence make it reasonably clear that countries that have achieved
sustained long-term growth such as the United States are those that invest a sizable fraction of
current income in the accumulation of physical and human capital and have and continue to
accumulate large stocks of both. As importantly, they are also economies that have been able to
steadily raise the productivity of these two inputs through a steady advance of technical
knowledge. There are reasons to believe, despite its evident economic success, that the United
States, due to varying degrees of market failure, may under invest in each of the three
determinants of economic growth. In theory, correcting that under investment through some form
of government intervention could lead to an optimal increase in the rate of accumulation of each
determinant, and through that to an acceleration of the economy’s rate of economic growth.
Knowing that there is the potential for improving on certain market outcomes is one thing.
Designing economic policies that will efficiently induce these improvements is another thing. The
information shortcoming about what, where, and how much to invest with which the policymaker
would have to contend will often be substantial, and greatly raises the risk that the policy will be
so blunt and misdirected that it will generate more economic costs than benefits.
This report will be updated annually.
Introduc tion ..................................................................................................................................... 1
Definitions, Measurement, and Goals.............................................................................................2
The Growth Record.........................................................................................................................3
The Determinants of Long-Term Growth........................................................................................5
The Infrastructure for Growth.................................................................................................13
Natural Resources and the Limits to Growth..........................................................................15
Policy Implications of Long-Term Economic Growth..................................................................16
Policies to Increase Investment in Physical Capital..........................................................17
Policies to Increase Investment in Human Capital...........................................................20
Policies to Increase Investment in Technical Knowledge.................................................21
Conclusion ..................................................................................................................................... 25
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................27
The rate of long-term economic growth is the salient measure of the nation’s ability to steadily
advance its material living standard. That living standard advances by increasing the economy’s
capacity to produce goods and services and thereby expanding the range of choices open to
society. Today’s level of gross domestic product (GDP) per person is 15 to 25 times that of a
person alive in 1895. This degree of improvement in material well-being is not only the result of
today’s far lower cost relative to income of directly comparable products (such as an hour of
illumination, a new suit of clothes, or a chair) but also the availability of an array of products that
defines our current standard of living (such as a cd player, air conditioning, tv, and air travel) that
were not available at any price in 1895.
Aside from the creation of new products, economic growth has also meant a dramatic change in
what we do. Agriculture has gone from the principal occupation to that of a tiny share of the labor
force. The automobile has transformed how we move about and where we live. Higher education
has become an endeavor of the many rather than the few. Hours of work have decreased while
hours of leisure have increased.
The pace of long-term economic growth is likely to be a central focus of attention in the decades
just ahead, as the U.S. economy must confront the need to undertake unprecedentedly large
generational transfers of income to pay for the retirement of the huge baby-boom generation.
Faster economic growth leads to a larger economic pie from which to make such transfers and 1
makes this redistribution less onerous for future workers.
Another element of concern about the future burden on workers grows out of the United States’
large accumulation of foreign debt stemming from a long succession of large trade deficits. With
a net foreign debt that now approaching $3 trillion and could plausibly approach $10 trillion in
the decade ahead, the United States could expect to have to make annual debt service payments to
foreign creditors of $80 to $100 billion. This means that a significant share of future output
growth will be transferred to foreigners and will not be available to improve the future living
standard of domestic consumers. Again, the eroding effect of these transfers on future living 2
standards of workers will be less if the annual rate of long-term growth is greater.
Although the trend growth rates of mature industrial economies have historically not shown great
variability, even relatively small differences in that growth rate steadily cumulate to have sizeable
effects on the scale of improvement in future living standards. An economy in which output per
capita grows at an average annual pace of 2.0% will double in size in 34 years, while growth at
3.0% leads to a doubling in size in only 24 years. Put another way, beginning at the 2004 level of
real GDP per capita of about $37,000, at the end of 24 years a 3% annual growth rate generates a
level of per capita real GDP of about $75,000, as compared to a level of only about $59,000
generated by a 2% annual growth rate for the same time interval. That extra $16,000 confers a
substantial broadening of economic choices and the ability to achieve any given spectrum of
economic and social goals with less sacrifice.
1 See CRS Report RL31498, Social Security Reform: Economic Issues, by Jane G. Gravelle and Marc Labonte.
2 See CRS Report RL31032, The U.S. Trade Deficit: Causes, Consequences, and Cures, by Craig K. Elwell.
Despite its importance for future living standards, long-term growth is seldom the explicit interest
of economic policy. Nevertheless, many policies directed at more immediate goals are likely to
have implications for the speed of economic growth. Tax policy, labor market policy, science and
technology policy, education policy, budget policy, as well as legal and regulatory policy can all
have effects on the rate of economic growth and the level of future income. If a more explicit
concern with the rate of long-term growth is thought appropriate by policy makers, then it will be
important to understand: what the salient determinants of long-term growth are; whether the
decisions of economic agents in private markets lead to a economically optimal allocation of
resources to each determinate; how could economic policy most successfully correct for a
particular market failure; and what admixture of particular economic policies are likely to offer
the best chance of achieving an optimal rate of improvement in future living standards.
There are some other distinctions about long-term growth that should be understood before
proceeding. First, long-term growth refers to an economy increasing its productive capacity or
what is usually called “potential output.” This is somewhat distinct from short-run changes in
economic activity over the course of the business cycle, such as recovery from recession. The
short-term goal is to have the economy operate near potential output, while the long-term goal is
to steadily increase potential output.
Short-term performance is certainly going to have an effect on long-term economic performance,
but there will also be important differences in the forces governing each, as well as different
policy implications presented by each. For example, in the short run in an economy operating
below potential output due to slack demand, monetary and fiscal policy can stimulate aggregate
demand, accelerate economic growth and push an economy towards potential output. But these
policies may have little impact on the rate at which potential output expands. The distinct forces
that govern the growth of potential output—or aggregate supply—are the concern of this report.
Second, analysis of long-term growth focuses on the growth of per capita output, most often
measured as real (or inflation adjusted) GDP divided by the nation’s population, as more GDP per
capita will likely be the essential requirement for a higher standard of living. It is possible to
increase real GDP per capita by increasing the percentage of the population in the labor force or
the average hours worked by the labor force. But both of these actions are bounded in that you
can only increase the labor force up to the size of the population (and realistically the upper
bound will be well short of that) and increase the average hours of work up to 24 hours a day
(and, again, realistically the upper bound will be well short of that). Therefore, these are not
actions that can cause a sustained increase in the rate of long-term growth. This is probably
particularly true for a mature economy such as the United States’ where these labor force
parameters tend to be relatively stable. More fundamentally, one can question whether increases
in per-capita GDP by such means represents a true rise in the standard of living. As we will see, a
focus on per-capita output points to a critical requirement for long-term growth and a rising
standard of living—increased efficiency, or productivity, that is, doing things that enable each
worker to steadily produce more in any given time period.
The standard measure of economic growth—increased real GDP/population—does not always
function as a precise gauge of changes in economic welfare. Many valuable things are simply not
measured in GDP. For example, leisure time, child rearing, and volunteer work all contribute to
our well-being but they are not reflected in GDP. Therefore, if parents decided to work fewer
hours to spend more time rearing their children, measured GDP would fall but general well-being
could increase rather than fall.
Also, many negative things can occur with economic growth that subtract from our well-being
but are not counted as decrements in measures of real GDP. Environmental damage, increased
income inequality, decreased quality of public education, or falling public health decrease
economic well-being, but do not necessarily result in a corresponding reduction of measured
Conversely, there are things measured in GDP, such as more prisons, more locks on doors, and
expenditures to protect against terrorism, that do not easily correlate with a rising living standard.
Nevertheless, while greater GDP does not assure a higher living standard, it provides the potential
means for achieving greater well-being by making the various elements of how we choose to
define that well-being more affordable. More affordable in economics is essentially a reduction in
the number and degree of tradeoffs confronted in economic life. If we choose to work fewer hours
or reduce environmental damage then we can do so with less sacrifice of other things if GDP is 3
Another important economic distinction between growth and economic welfare is that society’s
economic objective is not likely to be reaching the maximum rate of growth that is possible, but
rather, achieving the optimal rate of growth. That economic policy has the ability to accelerate the
rate of long-term growth does not necessarily mean that it should. Because faster future growth
usually means that the economy must divert resources from the production of goods for current
consumption and toward growth-generating activities, the growth rate consistent with an optimal
balance between the level of current consumption and the raised level of future consumption will
likely be far short of the greatest possible rate.
Super-fast growth would have little appeal if the fruits of that achievement are never consumed
because they must be continuously diverted to the investment needed to sustain that growth rate.
Private economic agents will make decisions in the market place that establish a relative valuation
of current versus future output, but if there is some degree of market failure, this outcome will not
be the optimal one and economic policy can potentially improve on the market outcome.
Sustained economic growth, anywhere, is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. While our
knowledge is imperfect, before 1500 there is no record of any increase in output per capita
anywhere in the world for millennia. And only after 1800 is there consistent evidence of sizeable
sustained increases in living standards across the globe. Between 1800 and 1900, output per
capita in the industrializing economies probably grew on average at 1.0% per year. Between 1900
and 2000, that rate of growth likely accelerated to about 2.0%. This may seem to be a modest
pace, but its was a sharp break from the stagnation and poverty that had prevailed for centuries
before, and because it was a sustained rate of increase generating cumulative gains, it was
3 For more discussion on the task of measuring GDP see N. Gregory Mankiw, Principles of Economics. (Fort Worth
TX: Dryden Press, 1997), pp. 477-494.
sufficient to steadily advance standards of living at a historically unprecedented speed, and 4
ultimately transform the world economy.
We also observe over the last 100-year span that the rates of economic growth across the then
emerging industrial nations were fairly tightly clustered around this 2.0% pace. At the high end
was Japan with an annual rate of growth averaging about 2.7%, while at the low end was Great
Britain with an annual growth rate averaging 1.4%. The United States, which grew at a 1.8%
average annual rate, was slightly below average. In the 25 year subperiod of 1980-2004, this
clustering has become tighter and the relative speed ranking has also changed. Among the major
advanced industrial economies, the United Kingdom grew fastest at 2.3%, Japan’s growth
decelerated to 2.0%, U.S. growth accelerated to 2.0%, and the major European economies
(Germany, France, Italy and, the Netherlands) grew relatively slower, with each achieving a 1.6%
pace. In general, this convergence of growth paths among the industrial economies has meant that
the differences in average growth rates of per-capita output are typically only a few tenths of a 5
percentage point. However, over the long-run, a few percentage points more will make a
substantial difference in the cumulative gain in the nations’ material standard of living.
For the United States, the long-term growth of real GDP per capita over the last 125 years has
revealed remarkable steadiness, advancing decade after decade with only modest and temporary
variation from the observed 1.8% annual rate of increase. This constancy is not absolute,
however. There has been short-run variability caused by the business cycle, but on balance these
short-run effects do not deflect the underlying long-term trend.
There has also been some medium-term variability, however, that demarcates some distinct
subperiods for U.S. economic growth. Growth decelerated to a 1.4% pace in the 1929-1950
period, a slowdown primarily reflecting the large and pervasive crippling effects of the Great
Depression on economic activity throughout the 1930s. From 1950 to 1973, economic growth
accelerated to an above trend average annual pace of 2.1%, as the United States (and the world)
experienced a strong economic rebound after WWII. The most pronounced deviation from the
long-term trend occurred from 1973 to 1995, with the growth rate of per-capita GDP slowing to
0.6%. (Other industrial economies also experienced similar or larger decelerations of economic
growth.) Unlike the period of the Great Depression this slowdown was not a matter of persistent 6
slack demand, for the economy was most often operating at capacity. Rather, the U.S. economy’s
productive capacity was just expanding at a much slower rate. While some slowing from the post-
war boom could be expected, this degree of deceleration went well below the long-term trend and
why it did so remains largely an economic mystery. Since 1995, the speed of U.S. economic
growth accelerated once again, reaching a pace of 2.3%, somewhat above the trend rate for the
complete post-World War II period. This above-average rate of growth is attributable to the
economic boom of the late 1990s. Over the second half of this decade, growth was somewhat 7
below the long-term trend, largely due to the effects of the 2001 recession.
4 J. Bradford DeLong, Macroeconomics, (New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2002), Chapter 5.
5 Angus Maddison, Dynamic Forces in Capitalist Development: A Long-run Comparative Study. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1991).
6 There were four recessions in this period, but the economy recovered from each and quickly returned to full capacity
7 DeLong, op. cit. For more discussion of the mid-1970s growth slowdown, the mid-1990s growth acceleration, and
prospects for the future see CRS Report RL32456, Productivity: Will the Faster Growth Rate Continue?, by Brian W.
Overall, the limited variability of the rate of U.S. long-term growth over such a long time period,
despite major changes in economic conditions, as well as economic and social polices, suggests
that U.S. long-term growth may be governed by forces other than typical economic variables and
may not be easy to deliberately alter with conventional economic policies.
Nevertheless, the evidence of some degree of medium-term variability suggests the possibility of
using economic policy to exert some influence. The reasons for those medium-term decelerations
and accelerations may reveal the do’s and don’ts of accelerating economic growth. In the next
section, the report examines the current economic understanding of the determinants of long-term
economic growth and what the behavior of those determinants suggests to be possible channels
by which economic policy might be able to accelerate economic growth.
A rising living standard is the result of increasing the productive power of workers, causing over
time an increase in the amount of goods and services the average worker can produce per hour, or
what is most often called—increased productivity. Economists have isolated a series of factors,
which through accumulation and interaction, are thought to play critical roles for generating
steady increases in productivity and sustained long-term growth. Three factors: physical capital,
human capital, and technological knowledge are seen playing a direct role in magnifying the
Other factors of importance play a more indirect role. These include the laws, government
policies, and institutions that come together to create a growth infrastructure that encourages,
enables and co-ordinates the economic behavior that causes steady accumulation of physical
capital, human capital, and technical knowledge, which, in turn, together generate sustained long-
Equip a worker with better tools and her productive power rises. She will be able to dig more in
an hour with a shovel than with a stick, and more still with a backhoe than a shovel. Such tools
that leverage the productive power of the average worker the economist calls physical capital and
the process of providing the average worker with more powerful tools is termed capital
deepening. To accomplish capital deepening an economy must divert some resources from
producing goods for current consumption to the production of capital goods such as factories,
machine tools, computers, or transportation equipment. In themselves capital goods do nothing to
satisfy current wants and needs, but their use will expand the economy’s capacity to produce
goods in the future. A deferral of current consumption is the economic cost of increasing
consumption in the future. The calculation that economic agents have made that warrants
incurring this cost is that what is given up today is more than compensated for by what is gained
This use of current resources for capital deepening is what the economist defines as investment.
High rates of investment lead to faster accumulation of the stock of physical capital, and that
ultimately translates into a more rapid expansion of the economy’s productive capacity. The
necessary economic corollary to investment is saving, diverting a share of current income from
current consumption. Therefore, economies with high rates of investment will also tend to have
high rates of saving. Because it is possible for a nation to borrow from (use the saving of ) other
nations, there does not have to be an exact concordance of domestic saving and investment, but
over the long run the two do tend to be highly correlated.
The importance of investment for economic growth is suggested by the very strong historical
correlation in cross country data between rates of investment (as a share of GDP) and rates of
economic growth. For example, over the last 50 years countries such as Japan, Singapore, and
South Korea, which have had high saving rates (25% to 35% shares of GDP) have also had high
growth rates (5% to 7% annual rates of increase in per-capita GDP). On the other hand, countries
such as Rwanda, Bangladesh, and India, with low investment rates (5% to 15% shares of GDP)
have also had low growth rates (1% to 1.5% annual rates of increase in per-capita GDP).
The United States’ rate of investment averaged about 20% of GDP over this 50 year span and, as
already noted, per-capita GDP grew at an average annual rate of nearly 2% per annum. However,
in recent years the U.S. investment rate has fallen to about 15% of real GDP. While correlation
does not necessarily indicate causation, and the causation could run from growth to investment,
most economists would judge that there is a strong positive linkage between investment, capital
deepening, and economic growth.
Interestingly, for most of the post-war period, economic analysis of the sources of U.S. economic
growth attributed a relatively modest contribution to capital deepening. Estimates at that time
indicated that only 10% to 15% of the observed growth rate was the consequence of the 8
accumulation of physical capital. Moreover, in the standard theoretical model used to analyze
economic growth, it was not possible to sustain an acceleration of the long-term growth rate 9
through capital deepening alone.
In the standard theory of economic growth, the force that steadily dissipates physical capital’s
impact on long-term growth is diminishing returns. Successive additions to the stock of physical
capital yield steadily smaller increases in worker productivity, to the point where there will be
little growth-boosting effect remaining. Capital deepening can temporarily boost the rate of
productivity and raise the level of income, but it cannot permanently increase the rate at which
they grow. This temporary acceleration of growth would most likely stretch out over a period of
many years, and it would, of course, leave the economy at a higher level of income than would
have otherwise occurred. In early formulations of this standard model of economic growth,
however, this temporary boost was not thought to be particularly large.
Similarly, diminishing returns to capital also help explain why many other economies grew much
faster than the United States over the last 50 years. Whether recovering from the devastation of
World War II (such as Japan and Germany) or just beginning the transition to an industrial
economy (such as Korea and Singapore), the undertaking of a process of capital deepening was
occurring to a far smaller existing stock of capital than that of the United States. As a result, it
was incurring little or no attenuation of productivity growth because of diminishing returns, so
that equal-sized rates of investment had a larger impact on worker productivity in these capital-10
poor countries then they did on the capital-rich economy. Therefore, a slower growing U.S.
8 Edward Denison, Accounting for United States Economic Growth 1929-1969. (Washington: The Brookings
9 Robert Solow, “Technical Change and the Aggregate Production Function,” Review of Economics and Statistics,
August 1957, pp. 70-92.
10 CRS Report 95-900, Rapid Growth of the Asian NICs: Economic Menace or Model?, by Craig K. Elwell. No longer
economy was not necessarily underperforming in relation to these faster growing economies,
rather it was just moving at the slower pace consistent with its much larger stock of physical
In the last decade and a half there has been a large increase in research on the question of what
propels long-term economic growth. One of the important outcomes of these recent explorations
has been a sizeable upgrading of the estimated effect of capital deepening on the long-term
growth rate of the U.S. economy. That effect is now judged to be near 50% of the observed 11
growth rate of output. This boost in the estimate of the productive contribution of physical
capital reflects two changes in thinking: one, an increase in the estimates of physical capital’s
relative importance in the productive process, which translates into any given increase in the size
of the capital stock causing a larger initial impact on output; and two, a slowing down of the rate
of dissipation of that initial impact by the advance of diminishing returns due to an output-12
boosting complementarity effect from associated increases in human capital (e.g., new skills).
The likely importance of complementarity effects between the individual determinants of
economic growth points to the importance of their overall pattern of accumulation. There is likely
to be a pattern of joint accumulation that generates the greatest boost to output. Physical capital is
not only important in its own right, but new technology will often only be applied to the
production process embodied in new capital equipment. That new machine, embodying the new
technology, will be most efficiently used if workers also have the boost in skills needed for its
effective operation. Similarly, some portion of improvements in human capital will occur through
a process of learning by doing as workers have access to the new physical capital embodying the 13
Also, the accumulation of physical capital embodying new technology may induce further
advances in technical knowledge not likely to be captured by the initiating investor. This type of
external benefit may manifest as a learning by observing effect as initial investors incur the costs
of figuring out the best organizational patterns for using the new technology and subsequent
investors replicate these patterns at much lower cost. For example, “mass production” was
initiated and perfected by a few firms, but once the productive benefits of this new process were
clearly evident it was quickly adopted by other firms, bringing sizeable economic benefits to the
wider economy that were not included in the initiating investors’ profit-loss calculation.
At the microeconomic level there is evidence in the case of adoption of new information
technology (IT) technology, that a few firms will undertake significant reorganization and make
large initial investments in physical capital to take advantage of the new technology. Once they
have settled on a form that successfully incorporates that technology in their operation, it will
then be replicated in a far less costly undertaking by competitors.
in circulation but available from the author.
11 See Dale W. Jorgenson and Kevin J. Stiroh, “Raising the Speed Limit: U.S. Economic Growth in the Information
Age,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, no. 1 (Washington: 2000) pp. 125-211.
12 N. Gregory Mankiw, David Romer, and David Weil. “A Contribution to the Empirics” of Economic Growth.”
Quarterly Journal Economics 1992, no. 107, pp. 407-438.
13 Kenneth J. Arrow, “The Economic Importance of Learning by Doing.” Review of Economic Studies, 1962, 29, pp.
153-173; and Claudia Golden and Lawrence Katz, “The Origins of Technology-Skill Complementarity,” Quarterly
Journal of Economics 113 (3), pp. 693-732.
Another manifestation of production complementarity is the learning by using effect, whereby the
propagation of a new technology embodied in new investment goods generates a burgeoning of
derivative technological advances. A good example of this effect occurred with the widespread
diffusion of electrical power into American industry, bringing with it an expanding opportunity
for learning and experimentation with this new technology, through which further technological 14
advances, such as the small electric motor, were developed. In many economies this correlation 15
has been found to be particularly strong for investment in machinery and equipment.
The probable complementarity of physical capital with human capital and technological
knowledge in the production process has possible implications for economic policy. Because a
portion the total economic benefits of investment in physical capital are spillovers to other firms
that will not be taken into the profit—loss calculation of the potential investor, there is a
likelihood that the actions of private investors will, from society’s point of view, lead to under-
investment in acquired capital.
When there is such a divergence between the social and private rate of return from an action,
there is a possibility that public policy can be used to affect a better economic outcome than what
the private market alone would achieve. (Specific policy responses are discussed in a later section
of the report.)
A worker’s productivity can also be magnified by increasing the knowledge and skills he brings
to the job, or as economists call it, through increases in the stock of human capital. In terms of the
example used in the previous section, giving a worker a backhoe who previously only had a
shovel, will not boost the worker’s output until she has also acquired the skills needed to operate
the enhanced physical capital. Human capital is most often augmented through education, not
only formal education such as grade school, high school, and college, but also on-the-job training,
both formal and informal.
As such, human capital investment is analytically distinct from increased technical knowledge.
Human capital refers to the various abilities that allow the worker to understand and apply new
productive knowledge. Technical knowledge can be likened to the books in the library, and
human capital to the ability to read and understand what is in those books. (The invention of
calculus added to the stock of technical knowledge, whereas, taking a calculus course adds to the
stock of human capital.)
Other than its direct application to the production of goods and services, increases in human
capital in the form of researchers, scientists, and engineers will also likely influence the creation
of technological knowledge and exert an indirect influence on the growth of worker productivity.
Human capital is the same as physical capital in that it is also produced by diverting resources
(students, teachers, schools, and libraries) from the production of goods for current consumption.
Therefore, the accumulation of human capital is also a form of investment: a deferral of current
14 Warren Devine, “From Shafts to Wires: Historical Perspectives on Electrification.” Explorations in Economic
History, 63 (2), 1983, pp. 347-372.
15 Bradford J. DeLong and Lawrence H. Summers, “Equipment Investment and Economic Growth,” Quarterly Journal
of Economics 115 (2), 1992, pp. 445-502.
gain in anticipation of a greater future gain. Also like physical capital, the accumulation of human
capital will be subject to diminishing returns.
The magnitude of human capital investment is most often measured by years of educational
attainment. By that standard, the United States over the last 125 years has undertaken substantial
investments in human capital. For the entire population the educational attainment for members
of the population who had completed their education increased by 6.7 years for cohorts born 16
between 1876 and 1975. The rate of increase in educational attainment was fastest from 1875
through 1951, with a gain of 6.2 years. However, there was a sizeable slowing of this rate of
increase over the next 24 years, with a total gain in this recent period of only about 0.4 years.
The 75-year period of rapid increase in educational attainment was broadly reflective of the th
nation’s steadily rising commitment of resources, beginning in the 19 century, to mass
education. This occurred first at the elementary grade levels and subsequently at the high school
level, leading to better-educated young cohorts replacing less well-educated older cohorts as time
For the purpose of accounting for economic growth, however, the more appropriate measure of
human capital growth is the educational attainment of the labor force. Trends in the educational
attainment of the labor force differ from those of the total population because of differences in the
size of age cohorts and differences in the labor participation rates by age and sex. However, data
on educational attainment of the U.S. labor force are available only from 1940. Those data reveal
a rapid gain in the educational attainment of the labor force from 1940 to 1980 followed by a
substantial slowing of the rate of increase from 1980 to 2000. Average years of schooling
increased 4.4 years—rising from nine years to 13.4 years. In 1940, 70% of the labor force had
less than a high school education and less than 6% had a college degree. In 2000, only 11% had
less than a high school education and 28% had a college degree. Increases in college education
have been an important source of the rise of educational attainment in recent decades.
Nevertheless, the two decades since 1980 saw the slowest gains in educational attainment of the
labor force of any 20 year interval.
Increases in educational attainment of the average worker for the time period 1915 to 2000 is
estimated to have directly contributed, on average, about 0.35 % per year to the rate of growth of 17
per capita real output, or about 20% of the 1.8% trend growth rate of per-capita output. This
contribution, however, does not include any estimate of the hard-to-calculate indirect benefits that
the growth of educational attainment might have had on the growth of new technology and
through that on productivity.
In contrast to physical capital, a large proportion of human capital accumulation in the U.S.
economy has been the result of some form of government subsidized schooling. This reflects an
explicit or implicit belief that human capital investments would be under supplied by the private
market. The chief economic rationale for public provision of education is that capital market
16 This discussion of educational attainment the contribution to economic growth follows that found in: J. Bradford
DeLong, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence H. Katz, “Sustaining Economic Growth,” in Henry Aaron, ed., Agenda for the
Nation (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2003). Studies that find similar results are: Dale Jorgenson, “The Quality of
the U.S. Work Force, 1948-1995” unpublished paper, Harvard 1999, and Daniel Aaronson and Daniel Sullivan,
“Growth in Worker Quality.” Economic Perspectives 4Q (Chicago: Federal Reserve Bank, 2001).
17 See DeLong, Goldin, and Katz, op. cit., and Jorgenson and Stiroh, op. cit.
imperfections and financial liquidity constraints of lower income families would cause
suboptimal investment in many types of human capital.
It can also be also argued that education generates external benefits that are not going to be tallied
in the rate-of-return calculation of the private investor, leading to an undervaluation of the rate of
return to education, and from society’s viewpoint an under investment in human capital. These
external benefits could include facilitation of the exchange in ideas, expansion of opportunities
for imitation, and learning by doing.
Another potentially important externality associated with human capital investment was discussed
in the previous section on physical capital—complementarity in the production process. In this
case, it is a result of investments in human capital having positive effects on the investment of
physical capital. For example, an entrepreneur may not be willing to make a substantial
investment in physical capital unless there is also a sufficiently large pool of skilled labor for the
new enterprise to draw upon. Again the implication is that the private market by itself is likely to
under invest in education and human capital accumulation.
Despite ongoing large public investments in education could there still be significant degree of
market failure that causes the U.S. economy to under invest in human capital? Given the
historical importance of education in generating U.S. long-term economic growth, it is reasonable
to be concerned that the recent slowing of the growth of educational attainment may undercut the
United States’ ability to sustain the pace of economic growth in the future. Also, evidence of very
high rates of return to specific types of education, and education support programs for subgroups
of the population, suggest that it may still be possible to boost the rate of economic growth
through further corrective public policy initiatives in these areas of human capital accumulation.
In economics, the phrase ‘technological knowledge’ refers to the way scarce inputs are brought
together to produce desired goods and services. Whether the growing of wheat, the manufacture
of automobiles, or the development of a new drug, the steady improvement of technology over
time, by allowing the production of more and better output from any given endowment of
economic resources, is the “engine” that drives long-term growth and sustains improvement in the
nation’s economic well-being.
In the analytical framework of the most widely accepted models of economic growth, advancing
technological knowledge plays the critical role of pushing back the onset of the diminishing
returns that would otherwise steadily reduce over time the productivity-raising and growth-
sustaining ability of successive additions to the economy’s stocks of physical and human capital.
The magnitude of the contribution of advances in technological knowledge to long-term
economic growth has recently become a matter of some debate among economists. The issue is
not whether a steady improvement in technological knowledge is what ultimately sustains long-
term growth, but rather the size of its effect and what factors determine that improvement. The
seminal post-war literature on growth generally attributed about 75% of the growth in output per
labor hour to technical progress. In these studies technical knowledge and its output impact were
not estimated directly, but derived as a residual that remained after the easier-to-measure
contributions of physical and human capital to economic growth were estimated. It was
recognized that this residual was probably also picking up the contributions to output of other
unmeasured forces such as resource re-allocation, economies of scale, and unmeasured capital
and labor. Nevertheless, advancing knowledge was still thought to be the most important force 18
generating U.S. economic growth.
Moreover, from the standpoint of economic policy, this model of economic growth indicated that
technical progress was determined by extra-economic forces such as the progress of science,
demographic patterns, and the existence of cultural attitudes and socio-economic institutions that
govern incentives to save and invest. In general, these are determinants of technical progress and
long-term growth that are unlikely to be significantly influenced by economic policy.
More recent research has changed this picture somewhat. As already noted above, more recent
investigations have led to an increase in the estimated contribution to economic growth
attributable to both the accumulation of physical and human capital and, in turn, a commensurate
reduction of the estimated size of technological knowledge’s contribution. It is still very
important, however, as it likely accounts for 40% to 50% of the rate of growth of real GDP per
Recent research on economic growth has also taken a closer look at the likely determinants of
technical progress, looking to explain this phenomenon as the consequence of purposeful
economic behavior, influenced by typical notions of risk and reward, and perhaps open to
influence by economic policy. The various versions of these new models are categorized under
the heading: endogeneous growth theories. This simply means that the advance of technical 19
progress is explained by the theory and not just taken as an unexplained external force. It would
be inaccurate to say that endogenous growth theories have supplanted the standard model, but
they have induced a more economically realistic rendering of the very important process of
accumulating a stock of technical knowledge.
The recent economic analysis of advancing technological knowledge proceeds very much like the
analysis of physical and human capital. At any point in time, the economy possesses a given stock
of technological knowledge. By continually adding to that stock it continually expands the
productive potential of the economy, that is, generates sustained long-term economic growth.
These actions taken to add to the stock of productive knowledge are also a form of investment in
that the accumulation only occurs by channeling some of society’s scarce productive resources
away from the current production of final goods and services. Scientists, engineers, research
facilities and equipment are scarce productive resources that could otherwise have been used for
the current production of final goods and services, and are the opportunity cost of producing
technological advance and sustaining long-term economic growth. It is the prospect of future gain
that will exceed these costs that drives the accumulation of technical knowledge in a market
Measuring the stock of technological knowledge is a problematic undertaking, however. A more
tractable task is an accounting of the flow of endeavors that most likely lead to additions to that
stock. Factors thought indicative of investment in technological knowledge that can be measured
include changes in the number and share of scientists and engineers in the labor force, the level
and intensity (share) of spending on research and development (R&D), and the rate of issue of
18 See Solow, op. cit. and Denison, op. cit.
19 See Paul Romer, “Endogenous Technical Change.” Journal of Political Economy, 89 (5), 1990, pp. 71-102; and
Charles I. Jones. “R&D—Based Models of Economic Growth.” Journal of Political Economy, 103 (August, 1995) pp.
new patents. Based on such measures, the United States (and other industrial economies) has
demonstrated over the last century a rising commitment of resources to creating technical
knowledge, but there is some evidence of a waning of some elements of these efforts in recent
The most basic input to the production of knowledge is the number of heads devoted to the task:
more thinkers tend to generate more ideas. The number of scientists and engineers engaged in
R&D in the United States has increased dramatically. From 1950 to 1990 the number grew from
less than 200,000 to nearly 1,000,000, or an increase from about 0.25% of the labor force to
A more comprehensive indicator of the resource commitment to the production of technical
knowledge is economy-wide expenditures on R&D. R&D expenditures have also steadily
increased, rising from about $25 billion in 1953 to $312 billion in 2004. As a share of GDP,
however, R&D expenditures have not shown a sustained upward trend, rising from about 1.4% in
standing at 2.7% of GDP in 2004. For comparison, R&D expenditures as a percentage of GDP in
the European Union was 1.9%, in Japan it was 3.1%, and it was highest in Isreal at 4.9%. The
steadiness of this share indicates that the United States has not increased the intensity of its
research efforts in step with the size of the economy. This steadiness also masks a significant
change in the source of funding for R&D. Industry share has risen and that of government has
fallen. This change likely has implications for the type of research being funded and the social 20
return forthcoming from the investment.
There is an imperfect understanding of the nature of the translation from resource inputs, to
knowledge creation, and then output growth, making evaluation of the economic significance of
these efforts imprecise and generally qualitative in nature. For example, while economists may be
reasonably confident that here is a positive causal relationship running from the level of resource
commitment in R&D to the rate of advance in technical knowledge, the exact character of the
transformation is not known.
It is known, however, that the inherent characteristics of knowledge create a substantial bias
against market-driven behavior investing enough in its creation. Improving technology is largely
a process of generating new ideas. To the extent that new ideas lead to profitable outcomes, and
those profits can be secured by a private firm or individual, the market economy will generate
new ideas and foster technological change.
An inherent attribute of ideas, however, is that they are non-rival, as my using an idea does not
preclude someone else from using it. Further, ideas often have the attribute of limited
excludability, meaning the owner of the idea will find it difficult or impossible to collect a fee
from others who benefit from it. These attributes cause a divergence of private benefit and social
benefit, meaning what the creator of the idea can expect to gain less than what the overall
economy can expect to gain. In this situation (as already observed with investment in physical
and human capital) we would expect the rate-of-return calculation that guides the investment in
idea production decision of the private investor to undervalue projects’ true benefits and bring
forth less than the socially desirable level of R&D effort.
20 Data on science related employment and research spending was taken from: Science and Engineering Indicators—
2006, National Science Foundation.
Therefore, the creation of technical knowledge is an activity likely subject to a significant degree
of market failure. This will usually mean that it is an activity that may warrant some level of
government support if it is to be done on a socially optimal scale.
While accumulations of capital and knowledge are the instruments that directly determine the
pace of medium-term and long-term economic growth, they are not by themselves sufficient to
assure that an economy will be on a path of sustained improvement in economic well-being. That
outcome will also likely be the consequence of the existence of an interlaced group of conditions
and attributes that form an “infrastructure for growth” that enables and encourages the forward-
looking acts of accumulation and invention that propel economic growth. This infrastructure is
comprised of laws, government policies, socio-economic institutions, and cultural attitudes that
are conducive to the entrepreneurial activity that generates sustained long-term economic 21
Economic history provides examples of the critical role of the growth infrastructure. In the
fourteenth century, China stood far ahead of Europe in its inventiveness, accumulation of
technical knowledge, and capacity for the accumulation of physical and human capital. Yet by the
sixteenth century, it was Western Europe that was set to initiate the “industrial revolution” and
China had lapsed into a state of economic stagnation. While there is disagreement about the
complete explanation for China’s failure to sustain long-term growth, economic historians see a
key factor being the emergence in the Ming dynasty, that had come to rule in this period, of a
general lack of institutional support for enterprising behavior. The admixture of a large
controlling bureaucracy, the absence of political opposition, and the Ming rulers’ preference for 22
stability over surprise were likely inimical to economic growth.
A more recent example of the adverse effect of an unsupportive growth infrastructure is the case th
of Argentina. At the end of the 19 century Argentina had one of the world’s highest levels of per-
capita income. But by the end of the twentieth century, it had fallen to less than half that of the
United States. Again, the decline is thought to be, in part, the consequence of government policies
that discouraged investment and invention, and undermined economic growth.
Examples of the obverse, growth miracles rather then growth disasters, can also be cited. The
biggest example of the favorable interaction of capital and knowledge accumulation with the
concurrent development of an growth-enabling infrastructure is post-World War II Japan. That
country had been an industrializing economy since the 1870s, but its rate of growth of per-capita
output had been no better than moderate in this pre-war period, with per capita output never
surpassing 25% of the U.S. level. After the war, however, the initiation of significant institutional
reforms improved that economy’s growth infrastructure and was likely a major reason for the
dramatic acceleration in the pace of Japanese economic growth over the next 40 years, far
outpacing that of the United States and increasing Japan’s per-capita income to nearly 70% of that
of the United States. Other east Asian economies such as South Korea, Singapore, and Hong
Kong are more recent examples of the positive influence of a well conceived “growth
infrastructure” on long-term growth.
21 For a more extensive discussion of growth supporting infrastructure see Charles I. Jones, Introduction to Economic
Growth. (New York, Norton & Company: 1998) pp. 127-145.
22 See Joel Moyker, The Lever of Riches. (New York, Oxford University Press: 1990).
An institution seemingly of central importance to economic success in general and achieving
sustained economic growth in particular, is the market. A system of markets is a social
mechanism widely revealed to greatly facilitate making the basic economic decisions all societies
face: deciding what to produce (including decisions about investment in physical capital, human
capital, and technological knowledge), deciding how to produce it, and deciding how to distribute
what is produced.
At root, markets are an information gathering and dissemination system that directs and
coordinates the actions of myriad economic decision makers with great efficiency, leading to
outcomes that are consistent with maximum economic welfare. The former Soviet Union is a
clear example of the economic inefficiency and poor economic performance of a non-market
economy. It was certainly able to accumulate capital and generate some measure of economic
growth, but in general the outcomes were well short of any reasonable reckoning of a steadily
rising living standard for the average citizen. Of course, the poor performance of the Soviet 23
economy was an important reason for the ultimate collapse of the communist regime there.
The discussion above has implied that government is likely to be an institution with a potentially
strong influence, good or bad, on the structure and operation of an economy’s growth
infrastructure, and through that an influence (good or bad) on long-term economic growth. The
positive role of government is likely to involve matters of prescription as well as proscription.
While there is no single template for success, many economic historians think that when
governments create an infrastructure that on balance encourages production and investment,
economic growth occurs. On the other hand, if government on balance encourages diversion,
economic growth is imperiled. Investors will not invest if there is not reasonable confidence that
the returns on that investment will be theirs and not diverted to others by government.
Government as the maker and enforcer of laws can militate against the corrosive effects on
economic incentives of corruption, bribery, fraud and theft. A function of law of central
importance for all economic transactions is the establishment of property rights and the
conditions of their transfer from one economic agent to another. This is of importance not just for
real property, but also intellectual property. As we know, new ideas are the engine of long-term
growth, but due to non-excludability the social return will often be greater then the return to the
creator of the idea. Patent laws and copyright laws serve to bring the private return closer to the
social return and thus encourage idea creation.
Modern government can also contribute to the growth infrastructure through the pursuit of
macroeconomic stability. Inflation, by essentially raising the “noise to signal ratio” in price
information, degrades the market’s ability to efficiently allocate economic resources, including
those that determine the pace of economic growth. Recession and depression deflate the
incentives for investment and other forward-looking economic activity. While the swings of the
business cycle are unlikely to be avoided, macroeconomic policy can modulate its amplitude and
minimize its potential negative effects on economic growth.
The problem of the business cycle reminds us that markets do not always function perfectly, that
there will be instances of market failure. As was discussed above, markets can fail at the
microeconomic level. Physical capital, human capital, and technological knowledge can all have
23 For a fuller discussion of the role of markets as effective tools for efficient decision making by countless economic
agents see Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions,. (New York, 1984).
varying degrees of the properties of being non-rival and of limited excludability so that the social
benefit of investment in these factors of production may exceed the private benefit (i.e., return to
the investor). In this circumstance the market will not accurately price these factors and there will
be a tendency for the acts of economic agents in the markets to lead to an under allocation of
resources to these endeavors. Therefore an important aspect of government’s role in the operation
of a growth infrastructure would be to forestall or compensate for such market failures.
Of course, the practical task facing government in correcting for market failure is likely
formidable because the properties that prevent accurate pricing by the market will also likely
mean that government policy makers will find it difficult to accurately target the source of the
market failure and accurately gauge the extent of the under allocation. The risk in a large highly
interdependent market system is that an inaccurate or poorly calibrated attempt by government
policy to correct for market failure in one area may cause more costly distortions in an other area.
A government’s tasks extend beyond promoting long-term economic growth, of course. But the
other things government does are often likely to have some economic repercussion. Taxation,
regulation, operation of the legal system, social safety-net programs and national defense all
represent some use of resources that otherwise could be directly applied to investment and
economic growth. These are actions that may tend to lower economic growth, but also raise
overall welfare of citizens. Issues of importance for long-term growth due to such activities are
likely to be the magnitude of the diversion and the degree of neutrality of the diversion on 24
economic decision making, particularity the decisions to save and invest.
Does depletion of supplies of exhaustible natural resources place a limit on economic growth?
This has been a recurring critique of the economists’ view of a seemingly unlimited upward path
for living standards. While it is a possibility, economists see it as an improbable event. Despite
strong economic growth for more then a century, most commodity prices (adjusted for inflation)
have not risen and many have fallen, suggesting that supplies of most commodities are at least
keeping up with demand and preventing any increase in relative scarcity of commodities. Part of
the reason for this has been the steady discovery of new reserves of many natural resources.
Finding new reserves, however, is likely to be a bounded process that can-not be relied upon to
increase the supply of particular natural resources forever.
There have been other important offsets to resource scarcity, however. The form of many of the
advances in technical knowledge are innovations in machines and methods that eliminate or
greatly reduce the need in the productive process for commodities that have grown in relative
scarcity. Plastic replaced tin in containers, fiber optic cable replaced copper, and more fuel
efficient engines replaced gas guzzlers. These are cases where market incentives have likely
induced advances in technical knowledge. As the relative scarcity of a natural resource increases
and its market price rises so does the economic incentive to find less costly alternatives. A current
example is the sharp increase in the use of hybrid automobiles in response to rising gas prices.
One cannot guarantee that technical knowledge will always be able to forestall running out of
commodities, but the record so far has been very good.
24 See Stilitz, op. cit., Chapter 1, for more discussion of the economic roles of government.
Another counter-force to the rising scarcity of exhaustible resources is economies of scale. In
many instances, productive processes exhibit increasing returns to scale: as output rises there is a
less than proportionate increase in the use of inputs. So with economic growth, the resource
intensity of output falls, causing a slowing of the drain on commodity supplies. Historically for
the United States, economies of scale have contributed around 10% to output growth. Again, what
was true in the past need not carry into the future, but the record cannot be ignored either.
Markets can also take into account considerations of future resource needs and allocate resources
efficiently between the present and the future. If the owner of a resource anticipates that rising
scarcity will push its price much higher in the future, then he could hold those resources for sale
at that future date. Thus the use of some of today’s supplies of resources gets pushed forward in
time. The market is making provision for the future’s need for this resource. Of course, looking
into the future is a task filled with uncertainty, and it is possible for market failure to occur. It is
unclear, however, that government intervention in this case would do a better job of predicting
future resource needs.
Understanding what determines long-term economic growth does not necessarily mean that
economic policy should be used to affect it. That faster economic growth is possible does not
necessarily mean it is desirable. There is always a strong presumption in the efficacy of the
“market” to get things right, including the rate of investment in physical capital, human capital,
and technological knowledge. Market failure can occur, however, when goods have attributes that
preclude market prices from fully reflecting the economic value of an activity. If a market failure
is present, economic policy can, in theory, be used to improve on the market outcome and raise
In thinking about using economic policy to overcome some form of market failure, it is important
to recognize there will often be a distinction between a market failure’s “economic relevance” and
its “policy relevance.” Economic analysis may indicate that a significant market failure is
occurring and its correction could generate large economic returns. This, however, does not mean
that it will be particularly easy or even possible to craft a policy to correct for the market failure
without also causing distortions and other inefficiencies that will lead to the policy generating
more economic cost than economic benefit. The often incomplete information about the market
failure’s precise location, extent, and degree of interconnection with other economic activities
elevates the risk of the policy creating more inefficiency than efficiency and doing more 25
economic harm than a good.
In the preceding section of the report on the determinants of economic growth, economic theory
and evidence established reasons to suspect that, due to various forms and degrees of market
failure, the U.S. economy under invests in physical capital, human capital, and technical
knowledge. Therefore, the potential likely exists for various forms of economic policy, by
correcting or compensating for these market failures, to accelerate the rate of economic growth
and boost future living standards. In the cases of physical and human capital, economic analysis
25 For further discussion of market failure and the public policy response to it see Joseph E. Stigler, Economics of the
Public Sector, Second Edition (W.W. Norton & Company, NewYork: 1988) pp. 71-89.
indicates that the growth-accelerating effect may be temporary, but it would endure long enough
to still lead to a significant permanent increase in the level of GDP.
Most economists would agree that the “engine of long-term economic growth,” the force that
sustains a rising living standard decade after decade, generation after generation, is the production
of new ideas, or what this report has subsumed under the term “technical knowledge.” There is
less agreement over what governs the rate of advance of technical knowledge and how it might be
influenced by economic policy. Some would argue that the level of resource commitment to R&D
is an important determinant of the long-term growth rate and also an activity where a greater
degree of public support is warranted.
On the other hand, the acceleration of economic growth commencing in the last half of the 1990s
occurred without any increase in R&D intensity. Also the marked historical stability of the U.S.
long-term growth rate of real per capita GDP (at a 1.8% average annual rate) for more than 125
years, despite significant changes in a broad array of economic circumstances and policies over
this long time span, suggests to others that the generation of technical knowledge and, in turn, the
long-term growth rate may be propelled by deeply embedded social forces that are not likely to be
manipulated by economic policy.
Of course, if a boost in R&D activity only leads to a temporary medium-term increase in the pace
of economic growth it will still have a beneficial effect on future living standards.
As regards the invariability of the long-term growth rate, it is also true that the United States has
never really pursued a well-defined and orchestrated long-term growth policy. The closest
approximation was the 1950s and 1960s, when the confluence of high rates of investment in
physical capital, human capital, and technical knowledge was also a period when economic
growth was significantly above trend. Even here it is hard to isolate specific economic policies
that contributed to this higher rate of growth. We do observe in this period, however, a rising
government commitment to R&D spending, although a sizable share of this R&D was for defense
related programs. It was also a time of increased government support for higher education
through the GI Bill and other programs. There were also periodic attempts to use the tax code to
encourage business investment in physical capital. It was also a period when maintaining
economic stability became a central task of government.
The remainder of this section will examine specific economic polices to boost investment in the
three principal direct determinants of economic growth and, in turn, accelerate economic growth.
The first question to be answered in regard to investment in physical capital is whether the market
failure to be countered is a problem with the investment goods themselves (i.e.,
complementarities with other factors in the production process) or with the saving behavior (i.e. a
saving rate that is to low) that finances investment. The economically appropriate policy response
would likely be different for each.
The low saving rate of the U.S. economy has been a matter given considerable scrutiny over the
last 25 years. As recently as 1998, the U.S. saving rate was 18.3%, but it had fallen to 13.5% by
The economy’s overall saving rate is the confluence of saving undertaken by businesses,
households, and government, but only the last two have been the source of the fall of the overall
saving rate. The government saving rate in the United States has seen the biggest change in recent
years, moving down from 4.4 % in 2000 to -0.6% in 2005. This change is a consequence of the
federal government budget swinging from surplus to deficit in this period. The least understood
change in saving behavior is the precipitous fall of the household saving rate, down from around 26
The fall of the household saving rate has been the object of much economic research, but the
reasons for the decline remain problematic. No single theory can fully account for the
phenomenon, but three have considerable plausibility. First, capital gains on real estate, stocks,
and other investments, particularly in the 1990s, have greatly increased household wealth.
Economic theory predicts that a rise in wealth can reduce the need to save and increases the
tendency to spend. Second, increased government outlays for Medicare and Social Security
transfer income from a relatively high saving segment of the population to a relatively low-saving
segment. Third, more streamlined credit market vehicles, such as credit cards and home equity
loans, have removed constraints on household liquidity and prompted increased spending (and
The fundamental issue, of course, is whether the decline of the saving rate is largely the result of
optimizing behavior by households to establish a preferred balance between current and future
consumption. If it is the result of optimizing behavior on the part of households, the size and
abruptness of the fall of the household saving rate suggests a quite startling reduction in the value
placed on future consumption, or with the risk associated with realizing that future consumption.
Some doubt that such a change could be the exclusive result of optimizing behavior and further
suggest that it is at least as likely to be the consequence of an imprudent rise in economic
impatience or myopia resulting from changes in institutions or social conventions. At present,
economists can give no definitive answer to the question of whether the low household saving
rate is optimal or suboptimal.
If it is judged to be suboptimal, then the issue becomes: how can economic policy best affect an
increase in the U.S. saving rate? The debate about raising the household saving rate has centered
on the U.S. system of taxation as it works as a disincentive for saving, or as it could be used to
raise the incentives for saving. The concerns have included high tax rates on interest income, the
double taxation of dividend income, and the inheritance tax. All are widely cited characteristics of
the tax system that are disincentives to save. Incentives for saving are provided by the deferred
tax liability offered by IRAs, 401(k), and Keogh plans. Expanding the availability and flexibility
of such plans is seen by some as a means for raising household saving. Elaborations on this same
26 A negative saving rate by households indicates that as a group they are dipping in to past saving to finance current
expenditures. A negative saving rate by the federal government indicates that it is borrowing from foreign and domestic
sources to fiance its excess of expenditures over tax receipts.
theme are proposals to shift the basis of the whole tax system from an assessment against income
to an assessment against consumption, thereby exempting all household saving from taxation.
One criticism of such proposals for raising the incentive to save is that they will also lead to a
sizeable reduction of the tax burden on higher income households, who tend to save a larger share
of their income, and a sizeable increase in the tax burden on lower income households, who tend
to save a smaller share of their income. This result is in conflict with many people’s notion of
Another criticism made by many economists of private saving incentive policies is their doubtful
effectiveness at raising total saving. There are doubts about whether there is a significant positive
effect on private saving and there are doubts about the ultimate effect on total saving, even if the
private saving rate is increased. Doubt about a positive effect on private saving arises first
because of the apparent inelasticity of saving to changes in the rate of return (i.e., raising the
after-tax rate of return will not induce large increases in saving); and second, because such
incentives will have two opposite impacts on saving behavior. A substitution effect stemming
from the raised rate of return, which tends to increase saving, and an income effect stemming
from the increased wealth of the household, that tends to reduce the need to save and raises
current consumption. Studies indicate these two effects may be very close in size, so that such
saving incentive programs may have little net effect on the saving rate.
Doubt about the ultimate effect of private saving incentives on total saving arise because tax
breaks for encouraging private saving will, through their effect on the balance of the government
budget, reduce public saving (or increase government dis-saving) and leave the prospect of a
positive overall effect further in doubt.
The effect of changes in the public saving rate on total saving are far less problematic and may be
a more effective route by which economic policy can raise saving and investment. The policy
maker can be confident that policies that move the government budget away from budget deficits
and toward budget surpluses will raise both public saving and total saving. The change will not be
one-for-one due to some induced consumption spending, but it will be positive with an added $1 27
dollar of public saving typically leading to an increase of $0.50 to $0.80 in total saving.
The question about optimizing behavior that had potential policy relevance in the case of the
household saving rate is not an issue in regard to the current low public saving rate. The state of
budget balance is the result of a series of policy decisions that reflect numerous social, political,
and economic problems and goals whose relative importance can change over time. If higher
saving, higher investment, and faster economic growth are seen as a high priority, then most
economists would judge one of the surest ways for government to support that goal is to raise the
rate of public saving by moving the budget balance from deficit to surplus.
Economists have a strong suspicion that physical capital has positive external effects on the
efficiency of the productive process due to the effect of complementarity on other factors of
production. These extra benefits, however, will unlikely be taken into consideration by the private
27 See William Gale and Peter Orszag, “Budget Deficits, National Saving, and Interest Rates.” Brookings Papers on
Economic Activity 2, 2004.
investor, leading to some degree of under-investment in physical capital. In theory, this market
failure could be overcome by government policy with an appropriate investment incentive. In
practice, however, correcting this market failure is far from straightforward.
It is true that the structure of the tax system can have an influence on the decision to invest,
potentially affecting the rate of accumulation of the stock of physical capital as well as the
allocation of resources across different classes of investment. Therefore the argument is made
from time to time that the structure of the tax system should be shaped to promote investment in
physical capital so as to accelerate the rate of economic growth. Pro-investment policies might
involve more rapid rates of depreciation, investment tax credits, or altered tax treatment of capital
gains or corporate profits. But as already discussed above, the economic issue is not a question of
whether such proposals can increase the rate of investment in physical capital, but whether that
increase is economically optimal.
The prevailing view among economists is that while the tax system should not unduly discourage
investment in physical capital, neither should it be used as a mechanism to directly intervene to
promote it. In the absence of a true market failure economists argue that the tax system should be
neutral in its effect on all forms of economic behavior. In the presence of some form of market
failure, the daunting information requirements for implementing an efficient investment tax
incentive policy make it likely that such a policy would cause distortions in the pattern of
investment in types of physical capital, distortions in the allocation of resources between physical
capital and other economic ends, and inefficient rent seeking behavior. The ultimate economic
effect would most likely be to decrease overall economic efficiency and reduce economic 28
On the other hand, as discussed in regard to saving incentives economic theory and evidence
indicates that by running budget deficits (outside of periods of recession) government generates a
dis-incentive to private investment spending by diverting a share of the economy’s saving away 29
from private investors. There is no economic presumption that this diversion is economically
optimal. Therefore, inclining the budget towards surpluses that add to the nation’s flow of saving
and tend to stimulate investment spending is probably the surest and least distorting way the
government can provide incentive for investment in physical capital.
The government has long played a large and active role in support of education. It is the dominant
supplier of elementary and secondary education and also provides sizable support for higher
education. A steady rise in the quality of the labor force has been an important force behind U.S.
economic growth over the last century, but a source of concern for sustaining the rate of growth is
the decline in the average educational attainment of the labor force evident since 1980. Not
28 For further discussion of the structure and effects of the U. S. tax system see Joseph E. Stiglitz, op. cit. pp. 534-590;
CRS Report RL32808, Overview of the Federal Tax System, by Jane G. Gravelle and Donald J. Marples; and CRS
Report RL31235, The Economics of the Federal Budget Deficit, by Brian W. Cashell.
29 In an economy such as that of the United States, that is open to international trade in assets, inflows of foreign capital
can compensate for some of the shortfall of domestic saving, allowing the undertaking of domestic investment at a
higher rate than would otherwise occur. But in most circumstances, there will still be some dampening of domestic
investment. Moreover, the future returns of that externally financed investment will largely accrue to foreigners and to
that extent not effect an increase in domestic living standards.
reversing this decline is likely to ultimately have a negative effect on the pace of economic 30
growth and the future level of economic well-being.
The economic literature on education policy and human capital accumulation is vast and it is
beyond the scope of this report to relay in full. There are a couple of issues, however, that seem to
be of particular significance as they seem to offer potentially high rates of return. High rates of
return are guides to areas where an increased allocation of resources will improve economic
efficiency and raise social well-being. From the standpoint of economic efficiency, the great
likelihood of market failure in these areas means they are likely candidates for some enhancement
of economic policies to induce an increase in the allocation of resources to these areas.
One prominent corollary to the decrease in average educational attainment of the U.S. labor force
since 1980, has been a steady rise in the college wage premium. Economics tells us that such a
persistently high rate of return is evidence of an under allocation of resources to an endeavor. In
this case, from the standpoint of economic efficiency, too few students are seeking college
degrees. The share of high school graduates who attend college has increased over this time
period, but there are sizable differences in these enrollment rates across family income levels.
This would suggest that financial constraints continue to be a barrier to higher education for low
to moderate income youths and that policies that increase opportunities for financial aid for such 31
youths could yield large economic returns.
Another area that current research suggests offers large social and economic returns would be
expansion of programs that raise the quality of early childhood education for children from low-
income families. Good educational outcomes in general are the result of a cumulative process that
begins in the earliest childhood years. Poor results in the earlier stages make subsequent success 32
much less likely. Good ultimate labor market outcomes from educational enrichment programs
are also likely to depend on the enhancement of non-cognitive skills (i.e., persistence, self-
discipline, reliability, etc.) as well as cognitive skills. There is also evidence that an important
constraint on access to quality education and human capital growth by children of low-income
families is a lack of housing mobility. How to best enhance early childhood education remains a 33
matter of debate, however.
Steadily advancing the economy’s stock of technical knowledge is acknowledged by economists
to be the element of central importance for achieving long-term economic growth. While the
accumulation of physical and human capital are important contributors to this process, it’s only in
conjunction with advances in technical knowledge that these two factors can forestall the growth-
30 Policies to increase human capital will often have a dual benefit of improving not only the level of output and
income, but by generally having the greatest positive impact on those at the low end of the income distribution,
improve its distribution as well.
31 See OECD, Education at a Glance 2004. (Paris, OECD: 2005); and Alan B. Krueger and Mikael Lindahl,
“Education for Growth: Why and For Whom,” Journal of Economic Literature 39 (4), pp. 1101-1136.
32 See Pedro Carneiro, James Heckman, and Dayanand Manoli, “Human Capital Policy.” NBER Working Paper, no.
9494, Feb. 2003.
33 See CRS Report RL31123, Early Childhood Education: Preschool Participation, Program Efficacy, and Federal
Policy Issues, by Gail McCallion and CRS Report RL32871, Youth: From Classroom to Workplace?, by Linda Levine.
slowing onset of “diminishing returns” that they would otherwise be subject to, and sustain long-
But from a policy perspective, advancing technical knowledge has been somewhat of an enigma.
A sizable share of the literature on economic growth does not deny its importance but tells us that
it is a phenomenon propelled by forces largely out of reach of economic policy. On the other
hand, many economists argue that improvements in technical knowledge are likely to be the
result of purposeful behavior and whether motivated by greed, ambition, curiosity, or altruism
that behavior is more likely to occur in an economic environment conducive to invention and
innovation. This suggests that considerations of market-determined outcomes relating to risk and
reward will influence this behavior.
It is also likely that because of the nature of ideas, private markets by themselves will likely cause
a less than optimal commitment of resources to their creation. Therefore, an optimal level of
investment in new technical knowledge may require action by government to overcome this
Research and development is the activity thought most closely linked to the development of
technical knowledge. Business firms undertake R&D on a substantial scale; nevertheless, they
likely do less than is socially optimal. Under investment in R&D is suggested by the estimated
high rates of social return relative to private return on a wide spectrum of research projects.
Research suggests that the level of investment in R&D undertaken by firms may be only 25% of 34
the economically optimal scale.
Can economic policy entice firms to increase their R&D spending? The patent system is one
manifestation of government’s attempt to encourage inventive behavior by providing “property
rights” over new ideas. This is a well developed set of laws in the United States but there are
some questions about the patent system’s impact on R&D activity and economic welfare. It is
clear that the functioning of the patent system involves an economic trade-off. There is an
economic gain from patents inducing more R&D by companies, but there is an economic cost to
consumers of the patented product because the limited monopoly power conferred to the patent
holder will result in the product being priced above what would prevail in a competitive market.
The magnitude of this cost to consumers will, of course, increase with the length of time the
patent is in force. In theory there will be an optimal term for the patent that just balances the
social benefit of inducing invention and innovation with the cost of the temporary monopoly
power afforded by the patent. Some economists argue that the current patent system is out of
balance, giving too much weight to the rights of the inventor and not enough to the wider society 35
that bears the cost of the limited monopoly and that shorter patent terms are needed.
There is also concern by some economists about how efficient the current structure of the patent
system is at inducing invention and innovation. The focus of concern is the patent system being in
34 Charles I. Jones and John C. Williams, “Measuring the Social Return to R&D,” The Quarterly Journal of
Economics, 63 (4) (Nov. 1998) pp. 1119-1136.
35 See Michele Boldrin and David Levine, “The Case Against Intellectual Property,” American Economic Review, May
2002; and Adam B. Jaffe and Josh Lerner, Innovation and Its Discontents: How the Broken Patent System is
Endangering Innovation and Progress and What to Do About It, (New York: Princeton University Press, 2004).
some situations an impediment to the process of information transfer that drives the accumulation 36
of new knowledge. At one level the patent system aids the process of information transfer. For
in order to get a patent an inventor must make a full disclosure of the details of their invention,
making the knowledge that is inherent to the invention readily available to all who are interested.
Therefore, while imitation is not allowed, others may be encouraged to “invent around” the patent
or build upon that knowledge to develop other unique products or ideas. And the possibility of
“licencing” can allow use of the new knowledge by others. However, for some types of
information important to the process of innovation, the “arm’s length” market-oriented exchange
that patents encourage are perhaps less efficient then various non-market mechanisms. The
problem arises because of the often collective and cumulative nature of information use in the
process of innovation. It is collective in that an innovation will often be the result of of
information flows between several participants, some of whom might be business rivals. Patents
may tend to rigidify and slow these types on information transfers. It is cumulative in nature in
that a current innovation will often be an essential input to the development of subsequent
“generations” of a technology. Because of this characteristic there is concern that a patent system
that strongly protects the rights of the first generation innovator can impede the information flow
necessary for emergence of the subsequent generations of the innovation.
In general, these information transfer issues suggest that, as well as an optimal term for the
patent, there will also be an optimal “breadth” of the patent’s coverage. Some are concerned that
the current patent system is inclined toward creating an overly wide breadth for patents and is
slowing down the process of innovation. In cases where a patented “idea” is judged likely to carry
particularly large social benefits, the government may better serve general economic well-being
by buying the patent from its creator and allowing a quicker and wider dissemination and use of 37
this valuable new knowledge.
Also, in an increasingly globalized economy where the size of the market needed to assure the
profitability of a new endeavor often require foreign as well as domestic sales, the patent systems
of other nations become relevant to the domestic business firm’s willingness to undertake some
research projects. There is the prospect that improvement in the establishment and enforcement of
property rights internationally could have a positive effect on domestic R&D activity.
Another policy device that attempts to coax more R&D out of business firms is the R&D tax 38
credit. As currently structured, the tax code allows a 20% tax credit on R&D expenditures, with
the putative effect of stimulating such expenditures by increasing the after-tax return on research
projects. While the evidence indicates that the research tax credit does raise R&D spending by
firms, many economists have significant doubts about how well the tax credit does at targeting
and inducing R&D projects with large social benefits. It is likely that even with the credit, the
investing firm will still be inclined to undertake the research projects that offer the company the
greatest return rather than those that would offer the largest social return.
36 See Thomas Mandeville, Understanding Novelty: Information, Technology, and the Patent System, (Ablex
37 For further discussion of the patent system and innovation see CRS Report RL31281, Patent Quality and Public
Policy: Issues for Innovative Firms in Domestic Markets, by John R. Thomas.
38 See CRS Report RL31181, Research and Experimentation Tax Credit: Current Status and Selected Issues for
Congress, by Gary Guenther.
Why not use direct grants by government to firms to undertake R&D projects that offer large
social benefits relative to private return? Again, as discussed above in regard to incentives for
investment in physical capital, the information requirements for operation of an efficient grant
program is likely well beyond what government could hope to muster. The economic risk is that a
program of direct grants would, by distorting the patten of investment and by encouraging rent-
seeking behavior, generate more inefficiency than efficiency.
A curious aspect of firm behavior and the production of ideas is that in situations where the initial
R&D investments for a new idea are very high, but where once created the marginal cost of
replication is very low, firms will not undertake this endeavor unless they can expect to charge
prices that exceed marginal cost. Otherwise, insufficient profits would be earned. The first copy
of the Windows operating system cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but the cost of producing
all subsequent copies (the marginal cost) is near zero. Pricing above marginal cost, however,
violates one of the basic conditions for efficient market outcomes and connotes the presence of
monopoly power and the attendant loss in consumer welfare. Government anti-trust policy is
predicated on preventing such behavior. Yet, in this circumstance anti-trust action would be
antagonistic to invention, innovation, and economic growth.
Despite government incentives, large areas of economically beneficial research are unlikely to
ever be undertaken by private, profit seeking business firms. Most often this new knowledge will,
in addition to having large economic benefits, also have the attributes of being both highly
nonrival and unexcludable. Therefore, such research, usually called basic research, will only
emerge through government funding. Moreover, the beneficial outcomes of basic research are
often unanticipated, arguing for casting a wide net of research support rather than a highly
focused funding strategy. The fruits of past basic research have included the development of
longitude and quantum physics, the discovery of DNA and penicillin, and the invention of the
transistor and the laser.
Basic research is currently supported through the budgets of many government agencies including
the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, NASA, the Department of
Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Defense. Much of the actual research is done 39
at major universities across the country.
One policy issue for basic research is determining the appropriate level of government funding.
The rate of accumulation of technical knowledge is likely to rise with the level of resources
devoted to it, but the speculative nature of basic research makes it all but impossible to judge
what the economically optimal size of government spending on such research would be. The
absolute level of inflation adjusted government spending on basic research increased from about
$1.4 billion in 1953 to about $39 billion in 2004. About $21 billion of these funds were allocated
to universities and colleges where the research is performed. The intensity of government funded
basic research, however, has fallen, decreasing from about 0.7% of GDP in 1953 to about 0.2% of
GDP in 2004. International evidence has shown that there is a positive correlation between the
intensity of government-funded basic research and economic growth. Nevertheless, the
understanding of linkage between basic research and economic growth is not well specified,
39 For an overview of current federal programs supporting R&D see CRS Issue Brief IB10088, Federal Research and
Development: Budgeting and Priority-Setting Issues, 109th Congress, by Genevieve Knezo.
making it difficult to predict the precise pay-off in economic growth from a given increase in
spending on basic research. This, in turn, makes it difficult to say what the optimal level of such
spending should be.
A second policy issue with government funded basic research is the mix of that funding across
areas of scientific inquiry. The share of government research spending in health related areas has
risen steadily for the last 30 years and has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. Funding
for life sciences now accounts for 60% of the government’s basic research expenditures. In
contrast, inflation-adjusted funding for basic research in the physical sciences has not risen over 40
the last 30 years and accounts for only 10% of the government’s budget for basic research.
Some argue that this disparity in funding is inconsistent with the often interdisciplinary nature of
major innovations, and is a movement away from the balanced basic research portfolio that is
most likely to yield the maximum long-run return. This argument is not that research funds
should be reallocated away from health areas, rather that there should be a more balanced
increase across all areas of basic research.
Sustained long-term economic growth is a defining characteristic of the highly successful U.S.
economy and, perhaps more significantly, it is also a basic presumption that undergirds American
society. Economic well-being is expected to improve for the current and each successive
generation. To be able to realistically hold such an expectation is reflective of a momentous
economic achievement. Over the long course of history, sustained economic growth has been a
rarity and even today all too many nations struggle to achieve it.
Economic historians suggest that one thing that likely demarcates past failure from current
success at achieving sustained growth, as well as the current disparities between rich and poor
nations, is the development of an infrastructure for growth. This is an amalgam of laws,
government policies, and institutions that form an environment that, on balance, encourages
production and economic transactions.
Given this supporting infrastructure, economic theory and evidence make it reasonably clear that
countries that have achieved sustained long-term growth such as the United States are those that
invest a sizable fraction of current income in the accumulation of physical and human capital and
have accumulated large stocks of both. More importantly, they are also economies that have been
able to steadily raise the productivity of these two inputs through a steady advance of technical
There are reasons to believe, despite its evident economic success, that the United States, due to
varying degrees of market failure, may under invest in each of the three basic determinants of
economic growth. In theory, correcting that under investment through some form of government
intervention could lead to an optimal increase in the rate of accumulation of each determinant,
and through that an acceleration of the economy’s rate of economic growth. In some instances,
the induced boost in the rate of growth may not be permanent but the level of future income and
output will be higher, nevertheless.
40 See data in: National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators 2005.
Knowing that there is the potential for improving on certain market outcomes is one thing.
Designing economic policies that will efficiently induce these improvements is another thing. The
information shortcoming about what, where, and how much to invest that the policymaker would
have to contend with will often be substantial, and greatly raise the risk that the policy will be so
blunt and misdirected that it generates more economic costs than benefits.
This risk is probably the greatest with policies aimed at increasing private investment and saving.
This leads most economists to argue that the surest and most efficient way to raise investment and
saving is for the government to run budget surpluses rather than budget deficits. This provides a
general incentive to investment in physical capital through its favorable effects on interest rates,
but leaves the decision on particular investments with the individual business firm. This may not
extract the greatest social benefit, but what is extracted is done with a minimum of the economic
cost that would result from the distortions and rent seeking that a more focused investment
incentive policy would likely cause.
The government has been a longstanding supporter of human capital accumulation through large
scale funding for education programs. These efforts have had a substantial positive effect on
economic growth. However, the slipping educational attainment of younger labor force cohorts
evident over the last 20 years raises concern about slowing human capital investment leading to a
future decrement in the pace of long-term growth. Based on estimates of likely high economic
return, policies to improve access to higher education by minorities and members of low income
households, and policies to enhance early childhood education may warrant more attention.
New ideas and the accumulation of technical knowledge is what ultimately propels long-term
economic growth. The production of new ideas is a process that is unlikely to occur on an
economically optimal scale without government support. R&D activities do receive public
support, but there is still concern about whether this support is accurately targeted and undertaken
on an optimal scale. Of particular concern for public policy is spending on the basic research that
is likely an important well-spring for new ideas. Such research is largely dependent on public
funding and by some measures, that funding has been steadily waning, and tends to be very
skewed in its distribution across research disciplines. This would seem to be a movement away 41
from policies that have a high probability of helping to sustain or accelerate economic growth.
In trying to boost the long-term rate of economic growth, the policy maker faces what is often a
thankless task in that he is asking citizens to incur costs today for gains that will only fully accrue
decades into the future. In addition, given the maturity and existing strength of the U.S. economy,
as well as the revealed historical steadiness of the economy’s rate of long-term growth, it may be
that economic policies aimed at an acceleration of the economy’s long-term growth rate will
boost that rate by only several tenths of a percentage point. Nevertheless, that would be a
significant achievement and, as discussed earlier, those seemingly moderate increases cumulate to
a substantial improvement in the level of national income 25 to 30 years from now. The bulk of
the benefits could be seen as largely a gift from one generation to the next generation.
Finally, policies that encourage one growth determinant at the expense of other determinants are
unlikely to accelerate the rate of economic growth. For example, a reduction of the budget deficit
that occurs through reductions of government spending that supports investment in education and
41 It bears repeating that support for basic research alone does not produce new knowledge. It must interact with an
educated and well-prepared mind and be sustained by an infrastructure encouraging free inquiry.
R&D is not a pro-growth policy mixture. Moreover, the likely interdependencies of the
determinants of economic growth suggests that a successful overall growth policy is most likely
to occur by generating a balanced advance of investment in each determinant of economic growth
so as to gain the fullest benefit from their complementary influence on each other.
Craig K. Elwell
Specialist in Macroeconomic Policy