Two Years Post-Recession, Times Are Still Tough

Guest

David Leonhardt, economics journalist, New York Times

The U.S. economy officially climbed out of recession two years ago June, but many Americans still aren't feeling any recovery. The unemployment rate ticked up in May and house prices have dropped to their lowest levels since the bubble burst.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Only a few months ago, job growth exceeded expectations. Wall Street enjoyed a long run up, oil prices were up, but otherwise, the economy seemed to be a bit sunnier. Recent weeks saw the stock market slide, dismal job and housing numbers, downward revisions on growth and new talk about a double-dip.

All those numbers reflect choices. And amid all the statistics, it can be easy to lose sight of the individuals making those decisions: every business owner considering a new hire, a retailer ordering new stocks, a banker making a loan, an investor going in or staying put. What economic decisions are you making? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program on the Opinion Page, Fouad Ajami argues that the Arab Spring stripped the veil of illusion from Syria. But first, David Leonhardt of the New York Times joins us. He writes the Economic Scene column, for which he received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. And he joins us from a studio here in Washington. Thanks very much for coming in.

DAVID LEONHARDT: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And have we ever had an economy recovery quite like this before?

LEONHARDT: That's a good question. I don't know whether we have. But there's a lot in it that contains patterns that we have had lots of before. There's a lot in this recovery that is not surprising. In fact, I think one of the policy mistakes we've had is that people haven't learned enough from history about just how weak and uneven recoveries from financial crises are.

CONAN: How weak and uneven they are. And yet you have people - including today, Robert Samuelson, in the Washington Post saying: Part of the problem is pessimism. People are a little bit frightened that we've got our economic assumptions wrong, and they're just being very cautious: not spending, not hiring, not buying.

LEONHARDT: Yeah, that's right. I mean, if anything, to some extent, we've had the worst of both worlds. We need to - we've had too much optimism from policymakers and too much pessimism from businesses and consumers.

It's important to separate, here. I think policy did a very good job, first, in the late months of 2008, with the outgoing Bush administration responding seriously to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the Fed under Ben Bernanke, all the way through, responding very seriously, and the Democratic Congress in 2008.

And then you had President Obama and his team come in, and they responded very seriously and very aggressively, and so did the Fed - seriously, aggressively, creatively. Not everything they tried worked. But over the course of 2009, they really did arrest this terrible, terrible tailspin we were in. I mean, if you look at the data on things like stock prices, industrial production, global trade, it really did look like the beginning of the Great Depression.

An economist named Barry Eichengreen at the University of California has done that, and it was actually a little bit worse on many of those measures than the Great Depression. And then it stopped getting so bad. And it really did improve. It still didn't feel good, but it was no longer getting worse.

And then I think what happened was that Washington got a little bit too optimistic. And as a result, they didn't continue to push as hard. Politics certainly played a role. And in late 2009, into early 2010, you had the economy disappointing. It took policy too long to react to that. They finally did in the later months of last year, and then they tried to do some new stuff. And then again, I think people got a little bit too optimistic early this year. That really is the history of financial crises. Consumers and businesses are very wary about spending after they have gone through something as painful as this crisis.

CONAN: Obviously, the secretary of the Treasury, the president of the United States, the Congress, all those are important decision-makers, though collectively, all of us, aren't we more important?

LEONHARDT: Collectively, we are. But there's nobody in charge of all of us, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEONHARDT: Whereas if a majority in the House, 60 Senators, the president of the United States and the chairman of Fed all got together, you know, you're then talking about a few hundred people who could have a huge impact on the economy. You're right. Those few hundred people don't have as big an impact on the economy as the few hundred million of the rest of us. The way we spend our money, the way businesses hire does matter much more.

And I think the real uncertainty at this point is how are we going to respond? Are businesses going to start to say, well, you know what? I do have a lot of cash on hand. I do think we're going to eventually get beyond this. I am ready to hire some more workers. Are people going to be willing to go out and make some of these bigger purchases that they've sort of gone back and forth about whether they're willing to make? And those decisions will go a long way toward determining how long - how much longer it takes us to get out of this.

CONAN: And the decisions that - I mean, it ranges from deciding to buy a new refrigerator to deciding to, you know, put that new factory in Iowa instead of maybe Brazil.

LEONHARDT: That's right. My colleague, Catherine Rampell, who I know has been on this show...

CONAN: She has.

LEONHARDT: ...had a really good story in the Times last week, pointing out that one of the things going on here is that the cost of equipment is relatively cheaper than the cost of people, that the cost of equipment is falling, whereas the cost of people is not, in significant part, because of ever-rising healthcare costs. We've now had healthcare costs rising rapidly for the better part of a decade.

And so if you're a business person and you have to make a decision between expanding by using more machinery or expanding by using more people, it often makes sense for your bottom line to do it using machinery. And that is one of the things going on right now. Another thing going on is that they're really just is a lot of uncertainty. And there still is a lot of weakness in the economy. I mean, if you look at something like car sales or house sales, they are way, way, way below where they were at the peak. They have come up from the bottom, but they way below where they were at the peak.

And so we really have gone through a terrible financial crisis, and it really will take a long time to recover from, although there are things we can do more than we're doing now, politically, to try to speed the recovery.

CONAN: We're talking with David Leonhardt of the New York Times. And we want to hear about the decisions you're making - all right, maybe not as big a player as the president of the United States or the Congress, but your decisions are important, too. If you're an investor, a businessperson, a small businessperson, are you hiring? Are you ordering new stocks? What's going on from where you sit? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can begin with a Jeff, and Jeff's on the line with us from Ft. Lauderdale.

JEFF: Yes, good afternoon. I want to tell you my situation. I have a graduate degree and 30 years experience in the - working in finance in banks in the financial sector. After going through my 99 weeks of unemployment, I'm five months to go to 62. I've decided, as much as I don't want to, I still know a lot. I am going to be forced to apply for Social Security.

CONAN: And obviously, you know as well as I do, if you apply for it this early, you're not going to get as much as...

JEFF: I am seeing that. But like I said, I've went through my 99 weeks. I've had a couple of interviews by people past my age. I'm gotten some derogatory remarks about my skills, where I forgot more than these people would ever know. But it is what it is, and I've decided that you - at some point, you got to face reality. And I think partly, the problem is they're going to force a lot of people like myself that could make a contribution to society and the economy, force us into early retirement.

CONAN: Well, Jeff we wish you the best of luck. I hope you're happy with your decision.

JEFF: Well, I'm not, like I said, but at some point you got to face the reality. I got to do what I got to do. All right.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

JEFF: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. And David Leonhardt, he's right. If a lot of people like him make that decision, that's going to change things.

LEONHARDT: It is. I mean, that's just one example of how much pain these kind of financial crises cost. It's too late to not let the housing bubble happen. It's too late to not let the Wall Street debt bubble happen. But I do think it's worth remembering right now. That's why we're going through this. We're going through this because, as a country, we decided that house prices could never fall, no matter how high they got.

We're going through this because, as a country, we decided that house prices could never fall, no matter how high they got. We're going through this because we let Wall Street banks get levered up 33 to one, so that they had only a dollar in assets for every $33 in debt they were taking on.

And it's really important to try not let those things happen again. That is the role of regulation, and we let it lapse. That is of no consolation to the caller. And I think one of the things it reminds us of is just how broad the pain has been in this recession. He happens to fall into a few groups that, as groups, are doing better than average, the educator doing much better than the less-educated. The gap in pay between college graduates and everyone else is at an all-time high.

Older workers, on the whole, have survived this recession better than younger workers. But that doesn't mean that older workers are doing well right now, and it doesn't mean that college graduates are doing well. Many of them are struggling terribly. And it really is the reason - a reason why we want to look for any kind of - anything we can do now to try improve the situation and not just say, well, eventually, it'll get better, and so we'll just wait for that day.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's see if we can get Todd on the line, Todd with us from Athens, Ohio.

TODD: Thanks. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TODD: Yeah, I'm a business owner, and it's - I'd like to hire somebody if I could. It's just that it seems like finding people that are willing to take the lower-end jobs or the labor jobs are just kind of hanging out and not putting forward as much of an effort. Now, I admit that the job that I have to offer is a pretty grungy job, manufacturing biofuels and biodiesel. But finding people that - one, it takes time and effort to train somebody. By the time you get money's worth out of an employee, they're gone looking for, you know, better opportunities. What you can't say is I can blame them.

But the other thing I wanted to mention was that if you take a look at the average commoner in this country, it doesn't matter how many widgets you can manufacture as a manufacturer. What matters is if the people are going to buy them. You know, business is in business, basically, to sell product. And if people aren't buying, then it doesn't matter how our manufacturing sector is going.

CONAN: All right. You would think...

TODD: What I would like to see the country do and see the president do and the administration and Congress is to start a WPA program for green jobs, you know, a new grid, a smart grid. Alternative fuels that are sustainable. That's the one thing that this whole planet needs is energy. That's the one common factor. Everything revolves around energy. And I just don't see a WPA being put forward on the ballot on the bench.

CONAN: I think the president was in North Carolina talking about green jobs today, David Leonhardt, and - but I suspect Todd is also right. I don't see Congress or the president pushing for, and the Congress enacting a WPA.

LEONHARDT: Well, a WPA would have no chance in Congress. And Republicans have no interest in direct employment of people by the government. They believe government is too big right now. So you can then get into a debate, should the administration propose things that it knows have absolutely no chance of passing, for the sake of kind of starting a discussion, and moving the discussion. I don't know what the answer to that is. But Republicans have no interest in a WPA.

CONAN: Todd, thanks very much for the call. Good luck with your business.

TODD: Thanks.

CONAN: We're talking about your stake in this economy. If you're thinking about expanding your business, about hiring, retiring or not. Call and tell us what you're doing. What decisions are you making? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The U.S. economy officially climbed out of recession two years ago, this month. Many Americans, though, are still waiting for their recovery. We're talking today with business owners considering a new hire, retailers ordering new stocks, bankers making loans, investors going in or staying put. What economic decisions are you making? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This email from Chris in Pulaski, Wisconsin: I own a coffeehouse gift shop in a small suburb of Green Bay. Last year, I and two other employees ran the business. I was exhausted. I hired two more employees this year to cover my hours so I could focus on owner/manager duties: buying, payroll, marketing, etc.

I'm paying more in wages and in taxes. But revenues are up around 5 to 10 percent over last year. My sanity as an owner is worth the extra payroll to me. People are still buying gifts and coffee in this small town, as we are the only game in town - an enviable position. Our guest is David Leonhardt. He writes the "Economic Scene" column and founded the economics blog for the New York Times. And David, as those decisions go through, we see some sectors of the economy doing rather better. Manufacturing - which was so depressed for so long - seems to be rebounding.

LEONHARDT: It has rebounded. It fell back a little bit last month. And I think that was one of the worrisome things about the report. But it definitely has been rebounding, and that's a reminder, in some ways, of - the way we talk about the dollar is often a little bit misplaced. The government always says - no matter whether it's a Democrat or a Republican government - it always says, we have a strong-dollar policy.

Well, a weaker dollar helps manufacturers, because it makes it easier for them to sell their products in other countries, and it makes it harder for farm manufacturers to sell their products in this country. And the fall of the dollar has helped manufacturers. So that is one bit of a bright spot we've had. Healthcare just keeps on growing. That has all kinds of problems for our budget deficit. But it is a sector that employs people. So it's got some upsides, too.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Trevor, Trevor with us from Salt Lake City.

TREVOR: Hey, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TREVOR: Hey, just really quick: My wife is a hair stylist. She's been in the industry for about 15 years, working out of salons. We recently decided she's going to leave the salon. We're going to put about $1,000 into renovating a room in our home and just have her work out of our home. You know, people aren't willing to spend $90 for a haircut in the salon, but she can charge $60 or so out of the house and, you know, and then keep more money in her pocket, as opposed to the booth rent or the commission. And people just aren't willing to spend the money anymore. And so this has been a better solution for us.

CONAN: And what's your role in this enterprise?

TREVOR: Well, I'm in charge of remodeling and the construction to the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TREVOR: I actually work in sales, and things have been sluggish. And I've actually decided I'm going back to school next year, because I just can't, you know, just not able to move up, not able to do things. So she's wanting to expand what she keeps in her pocket from her business so that it can afford me to go back to school next year. So...

CONAN: All right. One of you is going to end up doing a lot of paperwork, too.

TREVOR: Probably, probably. Well, my background is in finance. And so I've been doing - I have a couple small businesses myself. So I've been doing our taxes and things of that nature for many years. So I'll probably end up as a bookkeeper, as well. But that's alright.

CONAN: All right, Trevor...

TREVOR: It's a great job. So...

CONAN: We wish your wife the best of luck.

TREVOR: Thank you, Neal. Have a good day.

CONAN: You, too. Bye. A couple of interesting things there: yes, the entrepreneur starting her own salon, but going back to school, too. You mentioned earlier that the division, the gap between those who have a higher education and those who don't, there's been so much talk about, you know, is a college degree worth it? Is a higher degree worth it?

LEONHARDT: Yeah, and a lot of that talk saddens me, because the economic answer to the question of is college worth it is a resounding yes. You can argue it's never been more worth it. Again, the gap between the pay of college graduates and everyone else is - it fell ever-so-slightly in 2010. So it's no longer at a record high. 2009 was the record high. But in the last few years, it's been higher than it has ever been.

And remember, that's a gap. That's not one of these - there are a lot of false records out there in the economy, you know - most-ever, highest-ever - which often just have to do with the fact that the population is growing. And because of inflation, things tend to - the numbers tend to get bigger over time. But the gap is between - that's a real number. There's nothing that says it needs to get bigger over time. There have been periods where it got smaller. And so the returns to college really have been rising. Yes, college costs are a concern. But if you look at most college grads, the boost they get in pay absolutely swamps the debt they take on. There are exceptions. But they are exceptions.

CONAN: Go next to Fritz, Fritz calling us from Cincinnati.

FRITZ: Yes, hi. I'm a veterinarian, and I have a small animal practice. And we've been renting a building for 15 years. And between '08 and 2010, we saw our revenue drop off and we saw our retirement funds and our mutual funds losing value. So I just made the decision last year to buy a piece of property and build a new practice. And it's been a year-long process. We're in the middle of construction right now. But it just seemed like something I needed to do for the survival of my business, move to a better location and bring in more business, as well as, you know, investing our money in something where, you know, the land value was down and the interest rates were low and the construction costs were down. And so we're sort of taking a leap of faith.

CONAN: It sounds like it. And some people might have said, well, maybe it's time to retrench a little bit.

FRITZ: Right. Well, and, you know, there was that thought. But we were in a building that was a leased building that was 40 years old. And we could either spend money to rehab that and recondition that, or just go with new construction. And it just seemed like the right time to make that move.

CONAN: As you said, land was relatively cheap. Mortgage rates are cheap, too. So is this going to be a bigger place? Are you going to have more people there?

FRITZ: It's going to be slightly bigger, about 50 percent more square footage. And we'll have the capacity to hire more staff. You know, we kind of have to wait for the clientele to drive that need. But that certainly is our hope. And, you know, at the very least right now, we've created jobs. We've got, you know, work crews building a building. And these are guys that can take that money and go home and feed their families.

CONAN: Well, congratulations and good luck. And when is the new place set to open?

FRITZ: Hopefully in September.

CONAN: Well, good luck.

FRITZ: Yeah. Thank you very much.

CONAN: And David Leonhardt, he should expect an invitation from the White House.

LEONHARDT: Yeah. It is good hear about things like that, I mean, for everyone's sake. And I think there were a few really important points that he was making there. It's not simply a matter of, oh, I want to invest for the sake of everyone else. There are tangible reasons to want to invest in the future of a business or the future of yourself now: low interest rates, the price of land having fallen, it being easier to hire workers. In the case of individuals, one of the reasons to go back to school, like the prior caller, is that there aren't as many good work opportunities right now, so what economists are referring with the opportunity cost of going to school is lower.

That is, in many ways, the history of expanding businesses, which is they invest during hard times, and then it really helps them during good times. And it's not as easy as my saying that, because you have to really have something you want to invest in. You have to have the access to capital.

You have to be able to do all these things. But I really think that is worth it for a lot of people to say, okay, can I take advantage of that? In fact, it's sort of a shame the government isn't doing that. I mean, interest rates for the United States government are incredibly low right now. If you were going to look for the absolute ideal time to go out and, say, try to fix some of our roads and bridges, many of which are not in good shape, and you wanted to say, boy, I want to do this at a time when interest rates are relatively low and when there are a lot of construction workers who might be available to do it. This is that time.

CONAN: But that might sound like a stimulus.

LEONHARDT: Yes, I know. Stimulus has become a dirty word. So instead, we call it a jobs package. That is what people in Congress have done. I think stimulus actually has a very good record. The great example of not trying stimulus was, of course, President Hubert Hoover. That didn't turn out so well. The biggest stimulus program the United States has ever tried was the mobilization for World War II. That worked extremely well, even better than the things that Roosevelt put in place that did bring down the unemployment rate, as high as it had been.

As I mentioned earlier in this show, I think stimulus worked really well in 2009. The stimulus hasn't worked at all for the United Kingdom or Ireland - I mean austerity, the opposite of stimulus. And then when you saw the government kind of taking its foot off the stimulus accelerator in 2010, the economy weakened again. So stimulus isn't perfect. The bill that was passed in 2009 certainly wasn't perfect. But I think it made a big difference, and I think the problem now is that we don't have enough of that.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kevin, Kevin calling from Tucson.

KEVIN: Hi. I'm a small manufacturer. And I've been mostly just increasing productivity through buying more and better equipment. There's been a - the stuff's been so inexpensive lately with the recession, I've been able to pick up really amazing machines for scrap prices.

CONAN: And are these machines manufactured in the United States?

KEVIN: The stuff I have has, yeah. Yeah. But they're - I mean, a lot of the stuff I have is very old. But I recently got a C&C mill and an automatic saw. And I used to have to sit at the saw and pull the material through one piece at a time. And I could have hired somebody to do that. But it was cheaper to buy an automatic saw, so I didn't have to.

CONAN: And if business picks up, you're going to be in position to take advantage of that.

KEVIN: Yeah. It's actually been pretty busy, but I'm really small. It's not hard to swamp me, you know.

CONAN: OK.

KEVIN: It's kind of a...

CONAN: And...

KEVIN: You know, I've been buying a lot of equipment and it's just been really affordable. And I know a shop here locally that they needed a wielder. But instead, they bought a robot to do the wielding. And it's all production welding that literally saves him a fortune.

CONAN: Robots don't require a lot in health care.

KEVIN: No, no. I mean, I'd love to hire people, but I, you know, I would feel bad not being able to pay them a reasonable wage and health insurance and everything else, so, yeah.

CONAN: Well, Kevin, good luck.

KEVIN: Thanks. Bye.

CONAN: Thanks. And that, on a small scale, David Leonhardt, was what you're talking about before, people investing in more efficient machinery and productivity, as Kevin put it, as opposed to hiring people.

LEONHARDT: Yeah. In the long term, I still think this is going to be a good thing. I still think an economy learning how to do things more efficiently and productively is good for all of us in the long term. I know it doesn't feel that way. And, in fact, the short term, it's sometimes is not that way.

But this idea that we're going to run out of work to do because we will have machines doing it all and then we'll all be unemployed is an idea that's never been true before, right? Every one who is making horse and carriages for horse and buggies lost their jobs. But it's not as if they remain unemployed for the rest of their lives, or we suddenly have this new permanent problem with the employment in this country.

So in the long term, when we get more efficient at things it tends to make us more productive and more innovative, and other jobs spring up out of these innovations. But in the short term, if a business is facing a choice between a machine or a person, for several reasons right now machines can look more attractive.

CONAN: Here's an email from Paul: I founded a small business two years ago. It's a software company. I'm investing considerably in my business right now because good talent is on sale. People who I would have had a hard time hiring a few years ago are now in my price range. It's a golden opportunity to further develop my software with great talent. I'm confident the market is still there, though, perhaps buyers are a bit more cautious than they once were. One thing that has changed recently - and I'm also using offshore labor for the most menial of tasks - I find their quality to be good, their cost to be low. But I only use local talent for my skilled roles.

We're asking you, what economic decisions you're making right now. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And our guest again is David Leonhardt, an economics journalist with The New York Times. He writes both the "Economic Scene" column and the founder of their economics blog and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.

Let's go next to Ken in Portland. Ken, you're on the air.

KEN: Yeah. This is Ken, calling from Portland, Oregon.

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

KEN: I was very excited to hear your show today because I spent 30 years in industry, was laid off at the downfall. And sure enough, started my own business and have been buying new equipment and hiring people and really used the experience that I learned on the job working for others in my own business. So it's been very successful and it's just good to put some people back to work.

CONAN: What field are you in?

KEN: We started a product line of nutrient-dense nut butters, like almond butter and cashew butter and pecan and walnut.

CONAN: And you sell these to health food stores?

KEN: We sell them to health food stores. We sell them in farmer's markets. And since we started, our sales this year are up four times over the last year. So I think it was really a matter of finding a good product to bring to the market that people are falling in love with. So you got to connect to something the market really wants and then you can hire people and buy more equipment was the formula we followed.

CONAN: Well, Ken, good luck to you. And I hope it's delicious.

KEN: I hope. Well, thank you. That's what our customers are saying.

CONAN: Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thanks very much. And, again, if you got a good product and you can find demand, David Leonhardt, well, this is a good country.

LEONHARDT: It is. It's arguably the best country there is for those things. And as many economic problems as we have right now, and they're serious ones, I'm not sure there's any other country in the world that would not trade their problems for our problems.

I think our problems fall into two categories. One, is the short term stuff. And I do think the Federal Reserve and Congress and the administration should be trying to do more to put people back to work. Right now, tax cuts doing more to bring down long-term interest rates, any form of government spending that can get through the Congress, things like that.

But then there are the long-term issues. And what we really want to do in long term is create more companies like nutrient-rich nut butter companies, right? Companies that didn't exist before and give people a product they want and employ people. And those longer term things are really important. They're not going to fix the economic this week or next week, but they are incredibly important. They are things like making sure our education system does better. They - to my mind, are things like making sure incredibly skilled immigrants who want to come live here, we'll let them do it. It seems to me that's a pretty good deal for us. And they are things like making sure that we do enough to fund the science research, including but not limited to alternative energy research.

And over the last decade or so, we've fallen behind on some of those things. And it's not going to help us next week or the week after or even next month or maybe even at all this year, but we need to care about more than that. And so, I would hope that even as we're doing these things to help the economy at the short term - even as we're trying to control our deficit, which we have to do - we're also making the investments that we need to make.

CONAN: A couple of emails. This is from Thomas in Rochester, New York: I operate an import and contract manufacturing business. Our business is grown the last year, but we can't afford to hire new workers. Health care in New York is $406 a month for a single employee. I can't ask them to contribute 50 percent of the cost. That would be about 25 percent of their take home pay and they are paid way more than the minimum wage.

And this is from Richard: I'm a liberal, small business owner and hire new people all the time. But the hoops you have to go through to hire an American worker makes it so much easier to hire foreign telecommuters. The amount of tax is irrelevant because hiring people is a write-off. But jumping through hoops, disability, unemployment and so on, is where my biggest problem is. Health care, that's a drag, and paperwork, according to Richard.

LEONHARDT: They both are a drag. I think health care is a bigger drag, but I agree that we have some regulations that don't make any sense and could be improved. I mean, the thing to remember about health care is we're now spending close to twice as much as other rich countries on health care. And the government share of health care is now at about 50 percent, mainly Medicare and Medicaid.

So what that means is that our government is spending about as much per person as countries where the government pays the whole bill. And then we, as private citizens, are paying the exact same amount on top of it. And it really makes you realize there have to be ways to improve our health care system to make it more efficient without hurting quality. Because the fact is, we're not getting vastly better results than the rest of the world on health care.

CONAN: David Leonhardt, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

LEONHARDT: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: David Leonhardt of The New York Times writes the "Economic Scene" column, joined us from a studio in Washington, D.C.

Coming up on the Opinion Page, Fouad Ajami argues the world has no choice but to confront its illusions about Syria. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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