On the Horizon, Five Reasons to Smile

The state of the economy is far from ideal, but some very definite positives are brewing. It’s not just that we are continuing to recover from a deep recession; we are also seeing signs that America’s long-term future may be looking up, too.

The state of the economy is far from ideal, but some very definite positives are brewing. It’s not just that we are continuing to recover from a deep recession; we are also seeing signs that America’s long-term future may be looking up, too.

The case for optimism is hardly open-and-shut. The economy’s problems include high unemployment, mediocre productivity gains and stagnant or slow-growing earnings for most income classes. Still, let’s consider five indicators that the future is starting to brighten:

MORE DIPLOMAS The nation’s high school graduation rate has risen — to 78 percent in 2010, the Education Department says in its most recent estimate. That’s obviously still not where it should be, but it’s the highest figure since 1974. (For a long time, the rate was under 70 percent. After decades of stagnation, the graduation rate started to turn up in 2000, and the growth has been robust for more than a decade.)

On average, these additional high school graduates — not to mention college degree recipients — will find better jobs and enjoy better health, long-lasting benefits that will be reaped for many decades.

NEW KNOWLEDGE, LESS COST When it comes to education, an even greater productivity gain may be on the way. This month, for instance, the Georgia Institute of Technology announced a new online master’s degree in computer science, for a price of no more than $7,000.

It’s part of a trend toward less expensive education and certification. The examples are numerous: the Khan Academy offers free online instruction in mathematics and other topics, and Coursera and other companies have popularized online courses for millions of users.

How far these trends can be pushed is unclear, but it can no longer be argued that the basic technologies of education haven’t changed in decades or even centuries.

LOWER HEALTH CARE INFLATION The growth rate in health care costs has been slowing for the last four years. In some years, in fact, it’s been no higher than the growth rate of the economy as a whole. And much of the change appears driven by efficiencies, rather than by the recent recession. This is documented in a paper by David M. Cutler, an economics professor at Harvard, and Nikhil R. Sahni, a fellow at Harvard Business School; it appeared in the May 2013 issue of Health Affairs.

This cost deceleration isn’t guaranteed to stick, but the danger that sharply rising health care costs, compounding over time, will crash the entire economy is now somewhat reduced.

POWERING AMERICA FOR LESS We appear to be at the start of a new era of cheap energy. Through advances in both oil and natural gas production, the United States is again becoming a leading exporter of fossil fuels.

Many of the nation’s economic troubles, like slow productivity and  income growth, began about the same time that America’s first age of cheap energy came to a sudden end, in the early 1970s. The effect of today’s energy boom on broader productivity remains to be seen, but it could prove a source of further gains. Unfortunately, cheap natural gas isn’t the path toward sustainable green energy, although it is cleaner than coal and has helped the nation make some progress in reducing emissions.

MOBILIZING THE CREATIVE This final development, concerning the fate of talent in lesser-developed nations, is perhaps the most fundamental. If you were born a genius in Shanghai in 1960, for example, your chances of making much contribution to the larger world were small, because China was largely isolated back then — and extremely unfree economically. It now does a much better job of mobilizing its considerable natural talent.

While the populations of countries like the United States are aging, the number of innovative young people worldwide has never been higher. Countries like China, India, Brazil and Russia, despite recent slowdowns in growth, still are making progress in improving their educational systems and scientific networks. That increases their ability to supply technological innovations — or scientists and entrepreneurs — to the United States. These gains can be reaped in coming decades.

Note, too, that none of these trends can be reduced to breathless or utopian claims about the future of information technology, even though each is intertwined with tech progress in subtle ways. Further breakthroughs in technology, perhaps in the field of quantum computing, could add substantially to these positive trends.

The first decade of this century was largely a lost one, economically speaking, for the average American household. And in the beginning of this decade, median household income has actually dropped, during a time of ostensible economic recovery. Yet the longer-run picture, finally, can be given a partly optimistic gloss. These trends may not ultimately be the dominant ones, but if we’re looking for a positive narrative about the American economic future, some important pieces are starting to fall into place.