Productivity crucial to U.S. economy

Martin Neil Baily

Now that interest rates have finally been increased, it is time to focus on something other than the Federal Reserve’s moves for a while and look at what is perhaps the single most important problem facing the American economy: the very slow growth of productivity.

Productivity, which is the output produced by each hour of work in the non-farm business sector, grew at a paltry 1.2 percent a year in the 10 years through the third quarter of this year. In the prior decade, the growth rate was more than double, at around 3 percent a year. The question is what it means.

High-wage workers have done better than the average Joe; and profits have grown faster than wages, but productivity growth is even more important — it is the rising tide that lifts most boats. Average wages grew at more than 2 percent a year during the years of strong productivity growth and are growing at under 1 percent a year now.

The pace of the productivity increase is also vital to the nation’s finances. The last balanced federal budgets came after the fast-growth 1990s, which drove up incomes, profits and tax revenues. Today there are scary forecasts of the size of future budget deficits, and those forecasts are set to become much scarier unless productivity improves.

Slow productivity growth does not have the drama of Janet Yellen arguing with angry senators. It is a problem like termites in the attic where you don’t realize it exists until the roof collapses. And, even worse, it is a problem where there is no generally recognized explanation, nor are there obvious solutions.

One possible explanation, put forward by leading economist Robert Gordon, is that all the best innovations have been used up. He looks at the broad sweep of history, describing the age of steam, the age of electricity, and so on. The last wave, he argues, is the one fueled by the technology bubble, and it ran its course 10 years ago.

Gordon’s diagnosis is hard to swallow, however, as technology is changing all around us. A June 2015 survey of the Fortune 500 companies asked CEOs to list the biggest challenges they face, and their number-one answer by far was the challenge of rapid technological change. Any visitor to Silicon Valley or Cambridge, Massachusetts, is impressed by the pace of change.

There seems to be a major gap occurring between the cup and the lip. Technology changes apace, but the changes are apparently not translating into more efficient factories and offices.

One reason for this could be a lack of investment in business and human capital —the skills of the workforce. The Great Recession certainly put a damper on all forms of investment and the recovery has been sluggish. Regardless of what caused the slowdown, a boost to investment would help productivity.

Another possibility is that economic data are not capturing the fruits of innovations. Improved surgical procedures, new drugs and better treatment protocols allow hospitals to become more productive, but this large sector of the economy shows almost no measured productivity growth. Silicon Valley is turning out new apps to make our lives easier, but very little of this activity shows up in our productivity statistics.

Another clue to the productivity problem is that, for some reason, the dynamism of the U.S. economy seems to have faded. The number of startups is down, especially the so-called gazelles that grow fast and become much more productive.

Traditionally, a source of productivity growth has been the expansion of the most productive firms and the contraction of the less productive, and this dynamic has also slowed, perhaps due to diminished access to funding, or maybe regulation has become more burdensome.

While the cause of the problem and the nature of the solution remain uncertain, there is a lot of exciting research going on to understand productivity better and formulate policies to enhance it. If misery loves company, the United States should feel better because weak productivity is a problem for all advanced economies.

Moreover, understanding slow growth is not just a challenge for “experts.” Many of the latest best ideas are coming from the global community. Perhaps a new explanation for and solution to the productivity problem will bubble up from the new interconnected world.

Editor’s Note: this piece first appeared in Inside Sources