What Sectors Will Keep America an Economic Superpower?

BY Business Desk  September 1, 2009 at 11:18 AM EST

American flag at the NY Stock Exchange; velkr0 via Flickr

Question: I’d love to see a discussion on future growth in the American economy. As we’ve witnessed, the financial services sector clearly has a limits to what it can yield. What are the sectors that can keep America an economic superpower? Are we able to provide labor and capital to those sectors? I’m not sure what a long term recovery looks like based on the current composition of American economic activities.

Paul Solman: It’s a point often made over the years: Prosperity, relative to the rest of the world, will depend in large measure on staying ahead in technology: i.e., higher and higher technology.

It’s a broad word, “technology,” that subsumes know-how, smarts, creativity. It surely requires education — lots of it — plus opportunity and access to capital. And certain features of the environment like political stability and a strong legal system. And maybe even a societal ethos of getting-ahead.

Now add all that together and what have you got? Arguably, the American economy — welts, warts, and wingnuts notwithstanding.

I took a cab to LaGuardia today. The driver was from Morocco. He’d won the lottery three years ago — one of 3,000 green cards issued to Moroccans that year. I asked how many Moroccans he thought were on the waiting list. He shrugged.

“Three million?” He has no intention of even moving back home. “Americans are friendly,” he said. “And here, anyone can go to school and become an engineer. Not where I come from.”

That’s been the American way pretty much from the get-go. As historian Bernard Bailyn pointed out decades ago, the “peopling of North America” was done by some extremely enterprising (and it should be noted, often ruthless) folks from elsewhere. They came to make a better — meaning more prosperous — life. Given the low person:land ratio (especially after the natives were eradicated), technology was a dire necessity. To stay competitive in the global economy, it still is.