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Economist who saw crisis coming: Focus on job training

By Eliza Ridgeway for CNN
Raghuram Rajan (right) was one of the economists who predicted the 2008 financial crisis. In his book "Fault Lines," which has won the 2010 Business Book of the Year award, he raises a new alarm.
Raghuram Rajan (right) was one of the economists who predicted the 2008 financial crisis. In his book "Fault Lines," which has won the 2010 Business Book of the Year award, he raises a new alarm.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Raghuram Rajan is the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund
  • His book "Fault Lines" has won the 2010 Business Book of the Year Award
  • He warns that another meltdown could happen if countries like the United States don't focus on skill building
  • Rajan says too many people in the U.S. workforce don't have the skills to do the high-level jobs produced by the economy

(CNN) -- One of the economists who predicted the financial meltdown has a new message -- instead of pointing the finger at bank chiefs, it's time to take a look at ourselves.

Raghuram Rajan, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, says that after a point there was no reason to look for villains behind the crisis that rocked the world economy in late 2008.

"Yes, punish those who are criminal. But there was a lot of activity that went on that was legal but did damage to the system," he told CNN.

"Prison sentences and lawsuits are not going to solve the fundamental underlying problem -- that many officials and homeowners wanted the loans the financial sector was handing out."

Rajan's ideas are being heard in the business world. His book, "Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy," won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award earlier this week.

Rajan believes that we are all implicated in the economic meltdown. Individual choices made by ordinary citizens, as well as by bank executives and government officials, brought on the crisis, he says.

"If you don't say to yourself that you were part of the problem, you're missing what happened over last 10 years," he said.

"I think what we have out there in the press are the easy reasons for the crisis -- bankers gone off track, crooked bankers, fraudulent bankers, weak regulators who were overly enthusiastic about markets getting it right," he told CNN.

Too many people in the workforce don't have the skills to do the high-level jobs produced by the economy. That's a long-term problem.
--Raghuram Rajan
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You can put a few bankers away in jail and arm regulators with new regulations, "but when you have a systemic crisis of the kind we've seen, the problem is deeper than a few bad apples," he said.

In "Fault Lines," he points out how widespread underlying flaws in the economy are just as much to blame -- and that while attention is being paid to clamping down on high-risk trading in bad debt, the structural problems that could cause another meltdown are going unexamined.

Rajan is known for being one of the few economists to foresee the crisis. As early as 2005, he was warning that what looked like a booming economy was based on extremely risky financial practices. But his calls for caution were dismissed as anti-market and he was labeled a "Luddite."

Currently a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Rajan is sounding a new alarm now: that recovery measures in the United States and abroad may be setting the world up for another disaster.

"It's more than just the financial sector," he told CNN. In the United States, for instance, there's growing income inequality. "Too many people in the workforce don't have the skills to do the high-level jobs produced by the economy," he said, and "that's a long-term problem."

"People are being left behind by growth," he said. The way to tackle this over the long term is by fixing schools, the attitude towards learning and the relationship between firms and schools themselves so there is a match between the skills created and jobs available locally, Rajan added.

He thinks the United States is going back to the kinds of policies that may have precipitated the last crisis, without taking stock of what needs to be done at a deeper level.

"There is enormous pressure on the Fed right now to try to do something, and you can't really cut interest rates below zero. People say do innovative things, the Fed says we'll go buy bonds.

"There should be a lot more attention paid to whether the workforce is appropriately skilled."

Doing so isn't important just for the United States, but has implications for the rest of the world.

"An America suffering high levels of unemployment is unlikely to be welcoming to high levels of foreign goods coming in. It's important that the United States feel confident, in terms of driving progress around world for the next 30 years."