Tag Archives: productivity

Waiting for the Tooth Fairy

Four prominent economists at the Hoover Institution have published a new paper claiming that President Trump’s policies could make the U.S. economy grow 3 percent a year. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but three of the four authors have been mentioned as people Trump might nominate to head the Federal Reserve Board after Janet Yellen’s term expires next February.

Let’s be clear: 3 percent annual economic growth would be quite an accomplishment. The U.S. economy hasn’t grown that quickly over a full year since 2005. There’s no doubt that Americans would feel much better off if the economy were to soar as the Hoover Institution economists suggest. Personally, though, I think we’re about as likely to get a visit from the tooth fairy.

The authors attribute slow U.S. economic growth to slow productivity growth and a drop in the percentage of adults who are in the workforce. I agree entirely. But they then go on to lay the blame on President Obama, without mentioning him. “Focused primarily on ‘stimulus’ in the short-term, the conduct of economic policy in the post-crisis years did little to reset expectations higher for long-term growth. That policy failure restrained those expectations, adversely affecting consumption and, especially, investment spending,” they say. The authors assert that lower taxes on businesses and on capital investment, less regulation, and slower growth of federal spending “would help turn the recent upswing in animal spirits into a significant improvement in economic activity.”

You may have caught this movie before. Back in the 1980s, President Reagan’s economic experts promised much the same. Tax rates were lowered, regulations scaled back, federal spending curtailed. Yet on average, output per hour worked in non-farm businesses — the most basic measure of productivity — grew more slowly during the Reagan years than it had during the miserable 1970s, when tax rates had been far higher. These policies were supposed to bring miraculous productivity growth, but as Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman, said in 1986 “The fundamentals that I look at are not a miracle.” 

What’s the issue here? Our four authors claim that “economic policies are the primary cause of both the productivity slowdown and the poorly performing labor market.” But as I show in An Extraordinary Time, the connection between government policy and productivity growth is tenuous. Productivity gains stem mainly from innovations in the private sector, which work their way into the economy in unforeseen ways. Government can help by supporting education, scientific research, and infrastructure, but the productivity payoff from such investments is unpredictable. The evidence that tax rates or government deficits affect productivity growth is quite weak. This is true not only in the United States, but in other advanced economies as well. 

Some productivity experts, notably Robert Gordon, think slow productivity growth is with us permanently, which would mean Americans’ incomes will grow only modestly in the coming years. I’m not so pessimistic. Historically, we’ve seen unanticipated spurts of productivity growth as firms suddenly figure out how to take advantage of new technologies and new ways of doing business. That has happened before, as with the Internet boomlet of the late 1990s, and I think it’s entirely possible that it could occur again. But I’m afraid the claim that the government can give us faster productivity growth just by passing a couple of laws falls into the realm of wishful thinking.

Mismeasuring Mismeasurement

Nobody wants ordinary. That’s why my assertion in An Extraordinary Time that our slow economic growth is merely ordinary growth doesn’t go down easily.  One typical response is that the economy’s performance is much better than official statistics indicate. In other words, we don’t have a slow-growth problem, just a measurement problem. If we were able to measure correctly, the contention is, we’d find that the economy is growing much faster than captured by official statistics and that living standards are rising, not stagnating.

There are a three reasons why I strongly disagree with this claim, which was most recently put forward by Martin Feldstein.

First, the assertion that economic growth is much faster than the data show is generally based on anecdotes claiming that the effects of particular products, such as smartphones and Google search, are undervalued by government statisticians. If we properly accounted for such advances, the argument goes, we’d find the economy to be doing much better than we think. These anecdotes, I find, are almost always accurate–there are indeed a lot of measurement problems–but they tend to be quite one-sided. Consider a counter-example. I think most Americans would agree that the quality of airline flights has deteriorated in recent years, as passengers are required to arrive at the airport well ahead of flight time, stand in long security lines, occupy seats offering less legroom than in the past, and wait at the arrival airport for luggage that is no longer permitted in the passenger cabin. U.S.  statistical agencies probably should adjust estimates of economic growth downward to account for the diminished quality of this product. They don’t. If all such mismeasurement problems were resolved, it’s not obvious that the net result would be a faster-growing GDP.

Second, the slowdown in economic growth in recent decades is visible not just in the United States, but around the world, in wealthy and less wealthy economies, and in many countries where semiconductor manufacturing, on-line advertising, and other hard-to-measure industries are relatively unimportant in economic terms. Identifying a purported shortcoming of U.S. national income statistics fails to explain why slower economic growth, and the slower productivity growth to which it can be attributed, are apparent in so many places.

Third, to claim that we’re now seriously underestimating economic growth, it’s not enough to show that some parts of the economy are mismeasured. Proving the claim requires showing that the mismeasurement problem is substantially worse today than in the past. I’ve seen no evidence to this effect. Consider that life expectancy at birth in the United States rose from less than 50 years in 1900 to 70 years in 1960, but has grown very slowly since. That rapid improvement over the first six decades of the twentieth century undoubtedly raised people’s living standards in a way not captured by the growth rate of GDP. The mismeasurement related to smartphones and social networking services seems trivial by comparison.

So the mismeasurement story doesn’t explain why economic growth in every wealthy economy is much slower today than during the postwar Golden Age–and has been so since the mid-1970s. And it doesn’t refute my assertion that what seems to be painfully slow growth is really just ordinary economic performance.

 

 

 

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.

My Housing Subsidy

It seems the new U.S. administration wants to make a major reduction in housing subsidies. From what I’ve read in the paper, though, it’s not planning to touch ours.

I’ve got to say that our subsidy is pretty generous. Last year my wife and I sold one apartment and bought another, and with it came a much bigger mortgage. Our monthly payments to the mortgage company went up — but our after-tax costs went down. The reason, of course, is that the U.S. tax code offers a generous deduction for mortgage interest, and lets us deduct our local property taxes from our income as well. By splurging on a more expensive property, we were able to cut our taxes quite a bit.

Looking at it another way, our government encouraged us to behave imprudently. Rather than having a relatively small debt that we could reasonably expect to pay off in a few years, we now have a relatively large debt that may well outlive us. Why the government should want us to go more deeply into debt is a puzzlement. I would not be shocked to discover that it has something to do with the lobbyists who ply their trade daily on Capitol Hill.

In my recent book An Extraordinary Time, I discuss the slowdown in productivity growth that has held back economic growth around the world for many years. I can’t help but wonder whether tax preferences for debts like my mortgage aren’t part of the story. While not all countries provide tax breaks for home mortgages, many countries do provide very favorable tax treatment to debt. In his excellent book Between Debt and the Devil, Adair Turner makes a persuasive case that such tax breaks encourage investment in existing real estate assets, which does nothing for productivity growth, rather than investment in the sorts of equipment and machinery that could make our economies more productive.

And then there is the matter of fairness. After finishing up our federal income tax return, I can report that the federal housing subsidy for my wife and myself is as large as the subsidies for some of the residents of the public housing complex near our home. Their subsidies are apparently on the chopping block because they are deemed government give-aways. Our subsidy, on the other hand, seems quite secure.

 

 

About Economic Arrogance

The other day Paul Krugman took a whack at the Trump administration’s “economic arrogance.” He was referring to the administration’s repeated claims that its policies can supercharge U.S.  economic growth, taking it as high as 3.5% per year for a decade or more.

The idea that the government can make the economy grow much faster than it does today seems to be an article of faith for many Republicans. During last year’s campaign, more than 300 economists signed an open letter insisting that the economy “could and should be growing 3 to 4 percent.” More recently, Kansas governor Sam Brownback told the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 25, “We’ve got to get the national economy growing above this paltry 1.8%, and I think it’s going to be a key measure for Trump.”

Krugman is right to criticize Trump, and many other Republicans, for insisting that their standard economic nostrums, tax cuts and deregulation, are sure to make the economy grow faster over the long run. There’s plenty of evidence about this; as I point out in my book An Extraordinary Time, the “supply-side” policies of the Reagan Administration, which emphasized lower marginal tax rates and less regulation, failed to rejuvenate U.S. productivity growth and produce an economic miracle. On the contrary, productivity growth during the Reagan years was lower than at any time between World War II and 1977.

So I agree with Krugman that when they promise they can make the economy grow faster over the long term, the Republicans are blowing smoke. But it is only fair to point out, as Krugman does not, that many Democrats have done much the same thing. Since at least the 1970s, many Democrats have insisted that the Federal Reserve could make the economy grow faster if only it would, despite ample evidence that Fed policy has little to do with productivity growth. Economists backing Bernie Sanders’s quest for the Democratic presidential nomination last year insisted that his tax and spending plans could make the economy grow 5.3% a year — an even faster growth rate than Trump claims he can achieve. While Hillary Clinton’s campaign offered no specific claims about the extent to which her economic program would bring faster economic growth, the campaign was happy to point to an analysis by Moody’s contending that the Clinton program would add about three-tenths of a percent to annual economic growth over the next decade.

Suffice it to say that I’m skeptical of such claims from any source. Looking more than a couple of years into the future, the main source of economic growth is higher productivity. And as I point out in An Extraordinary Time, productivity grows unpredictably and erratically, due more to private-sector innovations than to government policy. Economists of all stripes often like to pretend otherwise. Arrogance knows no party.

Uncomfortable Questions About Our Ports

Sometimes people ask questions to which they really don’t want the answers–especially when the answers might be inconvenient. A new government report that purports to look at how U.S. container ports are performing is a good example.

Container shipping, as I document in my book The Box, was an American invention. Newark and Houston were the first ports anywhere in the world to have terminals designed specifically to handle containers, and container terminals were developed in ports such as Oakland and Baltimore years before containerships reached Europe and Asia. But U.S. ports have long been laggards when it comes to efficiency. The world’s most productive ports, by most measures, are all in Asia.  No U.S. container port comes close.

In 2015, Congress directed the Department of Transportation to prepare an annual report on port capacity and throughput and to “collect port performance measures.” Unfortunately, the department’s first annual report on port performance, released in mid-January, carefully avoids saying anything about container ports’ performance. It charts the number of acres covered by each port’s container terminals, the number of cranes, the number of linear feet of berth, and the number of containers passing through. But nothing in the report allows a reader to judge whether, say, the Port of New York and New Jersey is as efficient as the Port of Savannah. The average number of container moves per hour for each vessel call; the number of containers handled per acre of terminal area; the average time an incoming container spends in the storage yard before being removed for delivery; the number of dock workers per million containers; the number of containers actually handled as a percentage of theoretical capacity: all of these statistics would shed light on ports’ performance. None of them appears in the report.

Why might that be? Let me hazard a guess. True performance measures might reveal that many U.S. container ports have built far more capacity than they need, that poor management and union rules cause some ports to take far longer to handle a large ship than other ports, and that some ports use workers and storage space much less efficiently than others. They might also show that most U.S. container terminals make far less use of automation than the best-run terminals in other countries. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who might not want such measures of port performance to be highlighted. If they were, the public might start asking uncomfortable questions

The Truth About “Pro-Growth” Economics

Like every president, Donald Trump has promised to make the economy grow faster. Good luck with that. In an article in Vox, I trace the history of the idea that we know how to make the economy grow faster. As I explain, while politicians love to talk about “pro-growth” policies, a productivity boom is not something Trump’s economic advisers, or anyone else’s, have the tools to bring about. Productivity depends mainly on private-sector decisions, and while government actions clearly influence it, the timing and extent of that influence are impossible to predict.

As I argue more fully in my new book, An Extraordinary Time, until and unless an unexpected productivity boom takes hold we’re likely to be stuck with an ordinary economy. That’s not terrible; at the moment, the United States is pretty close to full employment, and wages are on the rise. But it’s a far cry from the growth of 4 percent, 5 percent, or even 6 percent that Trump and some of his more zealous supporters have promised us. An effort to push the economy faster than underlying productivity improvements will allow is not likely to end well.

Running Hot

This morning I had a great opportunity to discuss my new book, An Extraordinary Time, live on the C-Span program Washington Journal. The host, John McArdle, was thoroughly prepared, and I found it a great relief to be able to talk about the history of the 1970s and 1980s without ending up in a conversation about Donald Trump. You can see the program here.

Viewers phoned in with a number of good questions. A key point I tried to make in responding is that the basic economic trends I write about, the slowdown in productivity growth after 1973 and the related slowdown in income growth, occurred across all the wealthy economies in Western Europe, North America, and Japan. Every day, it seems, we hear comments from politicians that they know exactly how to make our economy grow as fast as it did in the good old days. Some of the callers to Washington Journal echoed those views, blaming slow growth on something they don’t like–President Obama’s environmental policies, high CEO pay, budget deficits, tax treatment of carried interest, and so forth. I think it’s useful to point out to such people that since the end of the Golden Age in 1973 we’ve seen slower growth and higher unemployment in countries where none of those policies are in place. You may not like the low tax rate on carried interest, but it’s a considerable stretch to claim that it is causing our economy to grow at 2% a year rather than 5%.

Sometimes we get a bit carried away with our own power and insist we can make the economy roar like we think it ought to. The current lingo for this is to “run the economy hot.” What advocates of that approach seem to mean is that we should accept a higher inflation rate as a tradeoff for lower unemployment and big wage increases. As I explain in my book, this is not a new idea. We spent most of the 1970s believing that we could keep unemployment low if we were willing to accept just a little more inflation. That ended badly, and I’m not eager to repeat the experiment.

My New Book

Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy was not remotely on my mind when I began writing my latest book. Nor do I claim to be a political scientist. But the perspective I offer in An Extraordinary Time, which was published on election day, may be useful in understanding the deep discontent that has manifested itself in Trump’s election, Brexit, the rise of fringe parties across Europe, and many other ways.

an-extraordinary-time

The book examines what I consider to be a turning point in the history of the second half of the twentieth century–the sudden change in the trajectory of economic growth across much of the world at the end of 1973. Until that point, people in all the advanced industrial economies, and in many of the less developed economies, had enjoyed a quarter-century of nearly uninterrupted prosperity. Living standards had improved in remarkable ways. At the start of this period, around 1948, millions of people in Europe, North America, and Japan still plowed farm fields behind horses or mules and lived in houses lacking electricity and indoor plumbing. Most adults never had a chance to finish high school, and employment usually meant unrelenting physical toil. By 1973, most families could afford cars, color televisions, and summer vacations, and an expanding welfare state provided unprecedented security in the event of on-the-job injury, widowhood, and old age. Unemployment rates were low, wage increases frequent. People could feel that their living conditions were getting better year by year, and they heard constantly that wise government stewardship of the economy made this advance possible.

All of this changed dramatically after 1973. Average incomes would grow less than half as fast through the end of the twentieth century as they did during the Golden Age between 1948 and 1973. As full employment vanished and wage gains slowed, the welfare state came to be seen as a burden, not just a boon. The economic experts who had touted their ability to deliver permanent prosperity had no effective way to fix the underlying problem: much slower growth of productivity. Voters turned right, to leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but it turned out that free-market policies such as firm rules for monetary policy, deregulation, and lower tax rates were no more successful at restoring robust economic growth than the statist policies they replaced.

The reality, I suggest, is that the supercharged growth of the Golden Age was an extraordinary event that cannot be repeated by government directive. My subtitle, The End of Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy, highlights the fact that at most times and places economies grow slowly, not explosively. Voters, recalling the post-war experience, expect more. Politicians have no way to deliver it. That is a recipe for discontent, of which Brexit and Trump’s election are only the latest examples.

The Seaweed Situation

“¿Buscas empleo?” blares a billboard not far from the airport. “Are you looking for work?” There’s evidently quite a labor shortage on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Signs seeking sales clerks and waiters adorn many shops and restaurants, and sound trucks cruise the streets soliciting applicants for work as cleaners and receptionists. The official unemployment rate in the state of Quintana Roo is around 4%, but there seems to be work for anyone who wants it.

Which leaves a puzzling question: why were a dozen laborers raking up the seaweed on the beach every morning and carting it away in wheelbarrows?

Economic theory teaches that low unemployment should set off a happy chain of events, quite aside from the fact that jobs put food on the table. If unemployed labor is scarce, wages should rise as employers compete for workers. Higher wages make it more sensible for employers to invest in equipment to get more output from each hour of work – to substitute capital for labor, in economist-speak. Giving workers more capital to use, whether computers to make hotel reservations or mixers to make dough for tortillas, enables each person to produce more wealth, a portion of which goes to provide higher living standards.

For some reason, this isn’t happening in Mexico. Although everyone knows about the country’s burgeoning automobile industry, its heavy use of modern equipment makes it the exception rather than the rule. Economy-wide, Mexico’s output per work hour – one standard measure of productivity – has barely budged since 2006. Productivity in the food and lodging industry has dropped nine percent over the past five years. And while millions of Mexicans tied to the more modern parts of the economy are prospering, the tens of millions working in less productive sectors, including tourism, are seeing little or no improvement in wages or living standards.

This situation is worth thinking about. The number of new jobs and the unemployment rate are among the main measures used to track economic performance. But job creation is only one sign of a healthy economy. Productivity growth is another, and is arguably far more important for the economy’s future prospects. The fact that beachfront hotels prefer to hire armies of workers to clear seaweed by hand rather than buying machines that could do the job much faster is not a good portent for Mexico.