In NY Times, Paul Krugman (link) wrote about the comparison of European and U.S economic model, concluding that in the last 10 years, the European model of social democracy led to higher standard of living and, compared to U.S in output per hour and standard of living, and relative convergence of European countries relative to the U.S respectively.
The real convergence is a complex mathematical and empirical issue, so I will rather outline the key patterns of GDP per capita gap between the U.S and Europe and the economic explanation of it. I downloaded the data from the IMF and composed a graph which shows the GDP per capita (PPP-adjusted) in European countries as a percentage of the U.S GDP per capita. Switzerland is the only European country whose level of GDP per capita is more than 90 percent of the U.S level. Ireland, where the output contracted by 7.5 percent in 2009 (link), was once the poorest country in the European Union. Today, its GDP per capita reached 85 percent of the U.S level. In spite of the notorious advantages of the Nordic model, the GDP per capita level of all Nordic countries (excluding Norway), is below 80 percent of the U.S level. The UK GDP per capita is also far below the U.S level (75 percent). The levels of GDP per capita of the less developed countries in European Union (Slovenia, Greece, Portugal, Czech Republic and Slovakia) are all below 62 percent of the U.S level.
Source: IMF, World Economic Outlook
The basic economic question is the length of the gap between the U.S and European countries. To answer the question, we have to set certain assumptions. So, let's assume that the U.S output will increase by 2 percent in the long run. The economic theory would predict faster growth of less developed countries, since countries with lower levels of standard of living (GDP per capita) tend to follow-up the countries with higher GDP per capita. In economic literature, that is the so-called "catch-up effect". So, what would happen if the UK economy increased by 3.5 percent in the long run. A quick estimate shows that the time gap between the UK and US is 19 years. So, what happens of the US economy increases by 2 percent in each of the next year while, at the same time, the UK GDP per capita is 75 percent of the U.S level? A fairly quick estimate shows that, if the UK GDP per capita will reach the U.S level in 10 years (although an unlikely scenario), the UK GDP per capita would have to increase by 4.9 percent each year to catch-up the U.S level of GDP per capita. If France's GDP per capita reached the U.S level in 10 years (assuming 2 percent growth in U.S GDP per capita), it would have to increase the economic growth to 5.3 percent in each of the next 10 years. If the convergence objective is set at 20 years, the French economy would still have to grow at the annual rate higher than 3 percent.
The main question is why the European countries are still behind the U.S level of GDP per capita? There are, of course, many plausible explanations. As far as the GDP per capita is concerned, the difference in the level and growth of productivity is the most important figure in setting conclusions. After all, in the long run, productivity determines the standard of living across countries.
First, the European disease is mostly the result of high tax burden. High tax rates diminished the incentives to work, since each additional hour of labor reduced worker's marginal productivity. Hence, as professor Mankiw explains, the rise of European leisure (link) is mostly the result of fewer working hours. In addition, early retirement is a common phenomena across Europe. By 2030, each worker will support one retired individual in Germany. The coming of Europe's pension crisis (link) is a consequence of generous PAYG pension systems. Lower employment-to-population ratio led to higher tax rates to finance the financial liabilities for the retired. In addition, high government spending and periodic budget deficits discouraged productivity growth.
Second, another key to the explanation of the anemic growth rates in Europe is rigidity of the labor market. In many European countries, labor costs are very high (link). If the cost of labor market entry is high, people prefer longer studying and working in the shadow economy. The shares of shadow economy are relatively high in all European countries (link). The highest rates of shadow economy are in the following countries:
1. Slovenia 27%
2. Greece 26%
3. Italy 24%
4. Spain 21%
5. Belgium 20%
6. Germany 15%
7. France 13%
Source: ATKearney (2009), Friedrich Schneider (2005)
Third, Europe's relative decline compared to the U.S, is not a consequence of the lack of R&D investment. High percentage of R&D investment in the GDP is not a cure for the real cause. In fact, European universities rank far below the top universities in the world. In the field of engineering and computer sciences, the first non-US university is in the 15th rank. Europe's brain-drain is a known phenomena since many bright European minds immigrate to places such as the U.S, Canada and Australia. The outcome is deteriorating international ranking of universities and low efficiency of R&D expenditure on misguided projects such as the intention of the European Commission to build a "European MIT" (link) to boost Europe's global technology leadership.
Without higher growth of GDP, productivity and market working hours, European countries will hardly sustain the convergence towards the U.S level of GDP per capita. To boost economic growth, bold structural reforms are required to cut the rates of shadow economy, reduce tax and social security burden, decrease government spending and deregulate the labor markets.