Solving the Productivity Puzzle

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McKinsey Global Institute, “Solving the Productivity Puzzle: The Role of Demand and the Promise of Digitization,” 2018. 

This report discusses why the rate of growth in economic productivity has been so low in recent years, and how it might improve in the future.

Productivity: Why it matters

The report makes a fundamental assumption: “Productivity growth is crucial to increase wages and living standards, and helps raise the purchasing power of consumers to grow demand for goods and services.” That’s basic economics, but worth remembering at a time when people in many countries have grown accustomed to minuscule productivity growth.

Production and consumption are, of course, two sides of the same economic coin. The most obvious way for the average worker to receive more goods and services is for the average worker to produce more goods and services per hour of work. People can also get ahead by working more hours, but then they are paying for their economic gains with reduced free time.

The benefits of high productivity may not be distributed evenly, but that’s another issue. Workers may not receive their fair share of the benefits when productivity is rising, but they are even less likely to get ahead when productivity is not rising. Then the competition for benefits is more of a zero-sum game, and the haves will be especially resistant to redistributing benefits to the have-nots. The widespread assumption that anyone’s gain must be someone else’s loss is a big reason why our politics have become so ugly. (That last point is mine, not the report’s.)

Sagging productivity

The report is based on data from seven countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Productivity is defined simply as Gross Domestic Product per hour worked.

The data show these trends for recent decades:

  • Productivity growth was strong during the postwar economic boom
  • In general, productivity growth has been much slower since the 1970s
  • A brief productivity boom occurred from about 1995-2005, especially in the United States, associated with applications of information and communications technology (ICT)
  • Productivity has stagnated since then, with near zero annual growth in both Europe and the U.S.

The report identifies three main reasons for low productivity growth, describing them as waves passing over the economy one by one.

First, the rate of innovation associated with ICT slowed after 2005. For example, big retailers like Walmart had used the new technologies to make their supply chains more efficient, but the biggest changes had already occurred by then.

Second, the financial crisis of 2007-08 ushered in a period of “weak demand and uncertainty.” Businesses were reluctant to make costly changes in production without confidence that the market could absorb the additional goods or services produced. Companies held back on new investments and held the line on wages. The economy recovered from the recession, but it was a “job-rich” and “productivity-poor” recovery. As long as there were people wanting to return to work, “companies met slowly rising demand by filling excess capacity and adding hours,” not by raising productivity and wages. Hopefully, the economy can now move beyond recovery into a new period of productivity growth and wage gains. The danger is that the economy becomes stuck in a vicious cycle, in which workers earn too little to raise demand, and businesses fail to invest in higher productivity because they can meet existing demand with low-cost labor.

Third, a revolution in digital technology is underway, but “the impact of digital is not yet evident in the productivity numbers.” Many sectors of the economy, such as education, health care and construction, are only beginning to digitize their operations. Transition costs can be high, including not only the costs of equipment and training, but the disruptive impact on existing operations. A retailer that adds an online store may suffer offsetting declines in business at its brick-and-mortar stores.

Prospects for digital-based productivity growth

As of now, the economy is in a paradoxical position: “…In an era of digitization, with technologies ranging from online marketplaces to machine learning, the disconnect between disappearing productivity growth and rapid technological change could not be more pronounced.” How long can it be before technological know-how actually translates into productivity gains and higher wage potential for the average worker?

The authors of this report see “the potential for at least 2 percent [productivity] growth a year over the next ten years, with 60 percent coming from digital opportunities.” But they also see some potential problems that need to be addressed if that potential is to be realized.

One of their concerns is the market power that digital technologies may bestow on a few hugely successful companies:

Various digital technologies are characterized by large network effects, large fixed costs, and close to zero marginal costs. This leads to a winner-take-most dynamic in industries reliant on such technologies, and may result in a rise in market power that can skew supply chains and lower incentives to raise productivity.

To put it more simply, once a company has made a large initial investment in new technologies, it may be able to turn out products so cheaply and maintain such a locked-in customer base, that it may no longer have to raise productivity to dominate a market. It might just become fat and lazy. I doubt if this phenomenon is unique to the digital age. It may be part of the dynamics of capitalism, helping to explain why productivity-based economic change comes in cycles of growth, maturation and stagnation.

Demand-side constraints on productivity

Another big concern is that weak economic demand may continue to exert a drag on investment and productivity growth. Some of the weak demand may be just cyclical, a normal after-effect of recession. But the authors of this report join other economists in worrying that some of it may be structural–that is, built into today’s economy. They express concern that “declining labor share of income and rising inequality are eroding median wage growth, and the rapidly rising costs of housing and education exert a dampening effect on consumer purchasing power.”

How digital technologies affect jobs also has implications for the demand side. In theory, the benefits of higher productivity could appear in the form of higher wages and shorter work weeks, as they did in the postwar era. If, on the other hand, a large segment of the labor force is simply replaced by smart machines, their loss of purchasing power could reduce economic demand and nip economic growth in the bud. “Unless displaced labor can find new highly productive and high-wage occupations, workers may end up in low-wage jobs that create a drag on productivity growth.”

This line of reasoning leads the authors to recommend public policies that focus on the demand side. That is in contrast to conservative policies that focus on helping the supply side (businesses and their investors) with tax cuts and looser regulations. The implicit assumption (perhaps rarely stated since it seems so counter-factual) is that the poor capitalists don’t have enough capital to raise productivity and grow the economy. If, however, the problem is more on the demand side, then the economy may be helped by government spending to supplement the purchasing power of low-income consumers, invest in public works like infrastructure repairs, make education and health insurance more affordable, and support worker retraining for new jobs.

The report also recommends that companies “rethink their employee contract in order to develop a strategy, potentially together with labor organizations, where people and machines can work side by side and workers and companies can prosper together.” If that sounds like pie in the sky in this era of anti-labor capitalism, we should remember that it is a pretty good description of the business-labor understanding that existed during the last great era of productivity growth. More of us knew then what many of us seem to have forgotten recently, that the economic engine runs best when its benefits are widely shared. In the 1950s, the “widely shared” part mainly applied to white men. Now we must learn to be even more inclusive.

Overall, the report is an optimistic, yet not unrealistic vision: “A dual focus on demand and digitization could unleash a powerful new trend of rising productivity growth that drives prosperity across advanced economies for years to come.”

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