Alan S. Blinder wrote an article a couple of weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal called “The Mystery of Declining Productivity Growth ” (May 15). Who doesn’t like a good mystery? So I picked up the article and started looking for who killed Cock Productivity. And then it hit me. This could be Lesson 3. All of you HomeEc majors are going to love this one.
Now that you have GDP under your garter belt it is now time to master another macro indicator, productivity. And it is a good one to master. Productivity is important, misunderstood, and controversial. And because productivity is the result of dividing two numbers, it is arithmetically challenging.
Productivity is important because it is a key driver of a nation’s output growth. We all have t-shirts that say Go Growth because we have fallen prey to this macro mantra. Recall that GDP is like a mountain of stuff. We like the mountain to get bigger each year. Macro says it gets bigger each year if we have one or more of the following:
More labor producing stuff
More capital (plant, equipment, software, etc) producing stuff
More Productivity (Better ways of producing so that using a given amount of labor and capital gives you even more stuff)
Productivity is misunderstood. First, it is defined as output per unit of labor input. (Note: for those of you who know the difference between a two-factor and a one-factor production function please ignore my using labor productivity rather than total factor productivity. It seems easier to discuss this topic using labor productivity. I realize that technically it is not correct. But it does no harm for my purposes here).
To calculate productivity you therefore have to divide output by the number of labor inputs. People love rising productivity as much as a grilled cheese sandwich on white bread. Suppose Lila goes to a yoga camp and comes back to the factory all stretchy and happy. Her experience at that yoga camp means that Lila can now produce 10 Nehru jackets each day instead of her former best output of 7. She is still just 1 worker – but now her productivity is 10 instead of 7. Her boss, Mohammed, is quite happy with this result. Getting more work out of Lila and paying her the same means Mohammed can afford more chicken wings and wheat beer at the Upland Brewery on Friday night. Of course, since Lila can produce so much more in a given day, Mohammed has other choices – he can reduce the price of his Nehru Jackets and/or give Lila a pay raise.
Do you see why we like productivity to increase? Workers who become more productive lead to higher output, higher profits, higher wages, and lower prices. Slower growth or lower growth of productivity is not good and leads to the opposite. So companies and countries try very hard to improve worker productivity.
Rising productivity is good but it is pretty complicated. A second reason for misunderstanding is that if Lila can produce so much, maybe old Mohammed can fire Adore, her co-worker who has been known to read Herman Hesse novels on the production line. That doesn’t sound so good. Higher productivity can lead to a reduction in employment. Some of you are old enough to recall when the tractor replaced the horse. A lot of horses and agricultural workers got replaced when tractors increased the productivity of Ag workers – the ones who could master those new-fangled tractors.
Like Hillary Clinton therefore, productivity has a checkered past. This leads to controversy. One controversy has to do with the question of employment. Some productivity gains are very bad for some workers who get displaced by the new technology. But recall – stronger productivity also means more output, increased competitiveness, higher wages and so on. The higher output can lead to more employment. A new technology causes an initial employment decline and it may take years before the output effects generate more employment. So it is a tough call for politicians to actively promote increased productivity – even though it is the key way to increase GDP for the future.
Okay we are almost done and it is getting close to 5 PM and I can hear JD screaming for me. Here is where we get to the mystery, whodunit, and then the solution. Alan Blinder notes that productivity growth slowed in the USA since 2005. It is barely crawling at 1.3% per year compared to a rate of 2.9% before that. You used to be able to dunk the basketball. Now you can barely touch the bottom of the net using a trampoline. This is a serious decline.
Blinder in his Alan Blinder sort of way says this is both a problem and a mystery. We should solve this mystery. But in my humble opinion Prof Blinder may have been spending a little too much time lately in Colorado and Washington State. He lays off this mystery to things like getting free services off the Internet and how much of the current tech boom (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat) creates employment but not much output. He also says that businesses are churning less and that means less output from entrepreneurs.
There might be some truth to Blinder’s story but being one of the liberal persuasion it seems that Blinder simply does not want to admit to a whole other set of factors that might be important enough to have cut productivity growth by more than half. These items are not a mystery. Two recent articles offer a totally different view from Blinder– and suggest that the mystery is not very mysterious.
Martin Feldstein writes “US Underestimates Growth” (WSJ 5/19/15) and concludes that measurement problems during a time of rapid technological change underestimate GDP. The output and productivity are there – it is just that the government’s methods to measure them are not flexible enough. Feldstein goes on to say that approaching the productivity problem needs to address why firms are not buying more capital, why workers are not joining the labor force, and why smaller firms are not innovating. His advice is to focus on reducing tax disincentives and reforming taxes so firms want to invest and workers want to work. This,of course, is basic supply-side economics.
Dan Mitchell’s conclusion is pretty obvious from his title. “Big Government Is an Anchor on America’s Economy, Undermining Investment and Wage Growth” (WSJ May 16, 2015). Mitchell focuses on the thousands of new regulations imposed on financial, banking, and other firms in the years since 2008. These regulations create additional costs and uncertainty that prevent firms from expanding more and from workers actively seeking employment.
Feldstein and Mitchell emphasize productivity problems that seem pretty obvious. I am not sure why Blinder sees this slowdown as such a mystery. Maybe his ideology does not include supply-side solutions and this we are left with mystery. I wonder what Sherlock Holmes would say about all this.