The Peltzman Effect: Why Economic Growth Has Slowed in the US Over Time

by Mike Kimel

(Update: Naked Capitalism notes Mike’s post is the top read of the day in ‘links’)

In recent years, there have been a number of studies showing that generational income mobility is particularly low in the US. To quote this 2006 study by Tom Hertz:

By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States.

Hertz provides this handy chart:

Most of the “big government” countries that compare favorably with the US on intergenerational mobility also do pretty well on measures of entrepreneurship. The following snapshot comes from this paper by Acs and Szerb:

(GEDI = Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index)

While studies are, no doubt, imperfect, I’ve seen similar results before and they seem credible to me.

The studies note, essentially, that the US is not, for many, the land of opportunity it is touted to be, and is now being beaten out by countries like Denmark and Canada. Big government countries, countries where Americans seem to believe people aren’t motivated to get off their duff, are actually quite entrepreneurial and offer offer their citizens a lot of opportunity.

Meanwhile, one other thing to note… growth, real economic growth, has been slowing for decades in the US. George W Bush’s term, even prior to the start of the Great Recession, compares unfavorably with the 1970s. The highly touted Reagan years, for instance, saw much slower growth than, say, the big government LBJ administration or the even bigger government New Deal years.

What is going on here? Is it really the catch-up effect, whereby wealthy countries like the US necessarily grow more slowly than other countries? Or is there a Great Stagnation going on? And if so, why?

I think one explanation for this is the Peltzman effect. Sam Peltzman once noted that, in response to some types of regulation, people can have a tendency to change their behavior in ways that counteracts the intended purpose of the regulation. For instance, some bicycle and motorcycle riders will take greater risks when forced to wear helmets, assuming that the helmets make them safer and more impervious to accidents.

Now, economic advance depends on creative destruction, and creative destruction requires people to take risks. Come up with a great idea for a super duper new widget and it has zero effect on anything if you don’t go out and try to market the thing.

But take two people, both of whom independently came up with the same idea for that super duper new widget. One lives in the US, the other in Denmark. Which one gives up his/her job to start a new company? The American or the Dane? My guess is the Dane will, precisely because the Dane, unlike the American, retains a safety net. The Dane doesn’t give up health insurance for herself or her family, and has more social programs she can rely on if the new business fails. My guess is that isn’t just true for Danes and Canadians, but also for people in a whole host of countries with a stronger safety net than the US. If the US still scores higher than on entrepreneurship than these countries, it is for historical reasons. Attitude is part of the ranking, after all, and Horatio Alger stories are still in our DNA.

If my guess is correct, there are things we should expect to see in US data:

  1. The ratio of American companies, particularly successful American companies which required substantial commitments by their founders, that are founded by foreign born people relative to native born people has been growing. (I.e., native born Americans are becoming more risk averse when it comes to starting companies.)
  2. The ratio of American companies, particularly successful American companies which required substantial commitments by their founders, that are founded by native born people who were born wealthy (and thus have their own built in safety net) relative to those founded by native born people who weren’t born wealthy has been growing. (I.e., non-wealthy Americans are becoming more risk-averse when it comes to starting companies.)

Note that I am trying to distinguish between a “business” and a business that requires some substantial commitments by their founders. There is a big difference between someone leaving their existing employer to start a new business based on an idea they have been toying with for a while and someone who was fired six months earlier deciding that they have no choice but to start something, anything, to put food on the table. I don’t have that data, but I would be surprised if it 1 and 2 weren’t borne out. Unfortunately, I think the direction we are taking, politically, is just going to reduce entrepreneurship in this country more and more. There are only so many wealthy people, and only so many foreigners coming to our shores. The land of opportunity, we will find in the long run, is the one with a safety net.


  1. The first paper cited was put out by the Center for American Progress, which leans left. The second paper was commissioned by the Small Business Administration, but its authors are both at George Mason U, which has a definite libertarian bent. –
  2. Consider this a companion piece to Why Don’t Tax Havens Become Economic Powerhouses? and A Simple Explanation for a Strange Paradox.