Pushing Productivity

As I’ve talked to people about An Extraordinary Time, I’ve received a lot of questions about what government can do to improve productivity. Some readers have gone so far as to accuse me of advocating “no-growth economics” — and, not surprisingly, these critics tend to have their own favorite policy prescriptions which, they promise, will reinvigorate productivity growth and raise living standards.

So let me lay out my argument once more. I don’t assert that government is powerless to improve productivity. I do assert that productivity growth comes largely from innovative ideas put to use in the private sector. Government plays an important role in this. It’s very clear that government spending on education is important in developing a more highly skilled workforce. Government support for scientific research can have a payoff in terms of innovation, as Mariana Mazzucato has shown. Government spending on transportation infrastructure, when managed wisely, makes it easier and cheaper for producers and retailers to move goods and expand labor markets, giving workers a greater choice of jobs and allowing employers to draw on a larger pool of potential employees.

The challenge for policymakers, though, is that the timing and magnitude of these effects are highly unpredictable. It’s a good bet that if more students complete university degrees today, we’ll see some payoff in terms of higher productivity in the future. But when? And how much? We can’t answer those questions. With respect to research and development, it’s very clear that scientific discoveries themselves have no direct economic benefits. What matters is turning these discoveries into new products, services, and ways of doing business, and there is no way to predict whether that will happen or how important those innovations will prove to be. In this respect, the U.S. productivity boomlet of the late 1990s and early 2000s is instructive: the unexpected rise in the rate of productivity growth was attributable, in part, to research in computing and communications that had received public funding decades earlier. As president at the time, Bill Clinton was able to claim the credit for stronger economic growth, but he didn’t really have much to do with the public-sector investments that made it possible or with the private-sector innovations that drew on those publicly funded discoveries to bring our economy into the Internet era.

Through history, there have been a handful of developments that have led to extremely large increases in productivity: think of the steam engine, the electric light, the construction of the Interstate Highways. Bob Gordon, in his wonderful book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, highlights the importance of the the public water systems built in the early twentieth century in rapidly improving public health. For the most part, though, productivity improvement arrives slowly due to marginal improvements in technologies and business processes. When it comes to economic growth, lightning does not strike often.

So when a politician promises to make the economy grow faster, beware. Yes, everyone agrees that it’s easy to juice the economy in the short term: a big tax cut, some added deficit spending, or a cut in interest rates all are likely to do the trick, at the risk of unfortunate consequences a year or two hence. But over the long run, higher living standards depend overwhelmingly on the growth of workers’ productivity. Regardless of what governments do, in most times and in most places productivity grows slowly, which means that living standards improve only gradually. Like it or not, this is, as I assert in my book, the trajectory of an ordinary economy.

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