Reading Notes: Demand and Productivity

Here are two interesting articles on demand and productivity that people have recently brought to my attention.

The economic historian Gavin Wright — author of the classic account of the economic logic of the plantation — just sent me a piece he wrote a few years ago on the productivity boom of the 1990s. As he said in his email, his account of the ‘90s is very consistent with the suggestions I make in my Roosevelt paper about how strong demand might stimulate productivity growth.

In this article, Wright traces the idea that high wage regions will experience faster productivity growth back to H. J. Habbakuk’s 1962 American and British Technology in the Nineteenth Century. Then he assembles a number of lines of evidence that rapid wage growth drove the late-1990s productivity acceleration, rather than vice versa.

He points out that the widely-noted “productivity explosion” of the 1920s — from 1.5 percent a year to over 5 percent — was immediately preceded by a period of exceptionally strong wage growth: “The real price of labor in the 1920s … was between 50 and 70 percent higher than a decade earlier.” [1] The pressure of high wages, he suggests, encouraged the use of electricity and other general-purpose technologies, which had been available for decades but only widely adopted in manufacturing in the 1920s. Conversely, we can see the productivity slowdown of the 1970s as, at least in part, a result of the deceleration of wage growth, which — Wright argues — was the result of institutional changes including the decline of unions, the erosion of the minimum wage and other labor regulations, and more broadly the shift back toward “‘flexible labor markets,’ reversing fifty years of labor market policy.”

Turning to the 1990s, the starting point is the sharp acceleration of productivity in the second half of the decade. This acceleration was very widely shared, including sectors like retail where historically productivity growth had been limited. The timing of this acceleration has been viewed as a puzzle, with no “smoking gun” for simultaneous productivity boosting innovations across this range of industries over a short period. But “if you look at the labor market, you can find a smoking gun in the mid-1990s. … real hourly wages finally began to rise at precisely that time, after more than two decades of decline. … Unemployment rates fell below 4 percent — levels reached only briefly in the 1960s… Should it be surprising that employers turned to labor-saving technologies at this time?” This acceleration in real wages, Wright argues, was not the result of higher productivity or other supply-side factors; rather “it is most plausibly attributed to macroeconomic conditions, when an accommodating Federal Reserve allowed employment to press against labor supply for the first time in a generation.”

The productivity gains of the 1990s did, of course, involve new use of information technology. But the technology itself was not necessarily new. “James Cortada [2004] lists eleven key IT applications in the retail industry circa 1995-2000, including electronic shelf levels, scanning, electronic fund transfer, sales-based ordering and internet sales … with the exception of e-business, the list could have come from the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wright, who is after all a historian, is careful not to argue that there is a general law linking higher wages to higher productivity in all historical settings. As he notes, “such a claim is refuted by the experience of the 1970s, when upward pressures on wages led mainly to higher inflation…” In his story, both sides are needed — the technological possibilities must exist, and there must be sufficient wage pressure to channel them into productivity-boosting applications. I don’t think anyone would say he’s made a decisive case , but if you’re inclined to a view like this the article certainly gives you more material to support it.


A rather different approach to these questions is this 2012 paper by Servaas Storm and C. W. M. Naastepad. Wright is focusing on a few concrete episodes in the history of a particular country, which he explores using a variety of material — survey and narrative as well as conventional economic data. Storm and Naastepad are proposing a set of general rules that they support with a few stylized facts and then explore via of the properties of a formal model. There are things to be learned from both approaches.

In this case the model is simple: output is demand-determined. Demand is either positive or negative function of the wage share (i.e. the economy is either wage-led or profit-led). And labor productivity is a function of both output and the wage, reflecting two kinds of channels by which demand can influence productivity. And an accounting identity says that employment growth is qual to output growth less labor productivity growth. The productivity equation is the distinctive feature here. Storm and Naastepad adopt as “stylized facts” — derived from econometric studies but not discussed in any detail — that both parameters are on the order of 0.4: An additional one percent growth in output, or in wages, will lead to an 0.4 percent growth in labor productivity.

This is a very simple structure but it allows them to draw some interesting conclusions:

– Low wages may boost employment not through increased growth or competitiveness, but through lower labor productivity. (They suggest that this is the right way to think about the Dutch “employment miracle of the 1990s.)

– Conversely, even where demand is wage-led (i.e. a shift to labor tends to raise total spending) faster wage growth is not an effective strategy for boosting employment, because productivity will rise as well. (Shorter hours or other forms of job-sharing, they suggest, may be more successful.)

– Where demand is strongly wage-led (as in the Scandinavian countries, they suggest), profits will not be affected much by wage growth. The direct effect of higher wages in this case could be mostly or entirely offset by the combination of higher demand and higher productivity. If true, this has obvious implications for the feasibility of the social democratic bargain there.

– Where demand is more weakly wage-led or profit-led (as with most structuralists, they see the US as the main example of the latter), distributional conflicts will be more intense. On the other hand, in this case the demand and productivity effects work together to make wage restraint a more effective strategy for boosting employment.

It’s worth spelling out the implications a bit more. A profit-led economy is one in which investment decisions are very sensitive to profitability. But investment is itself a major influence on profit, as a source of demand and — emphasized here — as a source of productivity gains that are captured by capital. So wage gains are more threatening to profits in a setting in which investment decisions are based largely on profitability. In an environment in which investment decisions are motivated by demand or exogenous animal spirits (“only a little more than an expedition to the South Pole, based on a calculation of benefits to come”), capitalists have less to fear from rising wages. More bluntly: one of the main dangers to capitalists of a rise in wages, is their effects on the investment decisions of other capitalists.

What Recovery: Reading Notes

My Roosevelt Institute paper on potential output came out last week. (Summary here.) The paper has gotten some more press since Neil Irwin’s Times piece, including Ryan Cooper in The Week and Felix Salmon in Slate. My favorite headline is from Boing Boing: American Wages Are So Low, the Robots Don’t Want Your Jobs.

In the paper I tried to give a fairly comprehensive overview of the evidence and arguments that the US economy is not in any meaningful sense at potential output or full employment. But of course it was just one small piece of a larger conversation. Here are a few things I’ve found interesting recently on the same set of issues. .

Perhaps the most important new academic contribution to this debate is this paper by Olivier Coibion, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Mauricio Ulate, on estimates of potential output, which came out too late for me to mention in the Roosevelt report. Their paper rigorously demonstrates that, despite their production-function veneer, the construction of potential output estimates ensures that any persistent change in growth rates will appear as a change in potential. It follows that there is “little value added in estimates of potential GDP relative to simple measures of statistical trends.” (Matthew Klein puts it more bluntly in an Alphaville post discussing the paper: “‘Potential’ output forecasts are actually worthless.”) The paper proposes an alternative measure of potential output, which they suggest can distinguish between transitory demand shocks and permanent shifts in the economy’s productive capacity. This alternative measure gives a very similar estimate for the output gap as simply looking at the pre-2008 forecasts or extrapolating from the pre-2008 trend.  “Our estimates imply that U.S. output remains almost 10 percentage points below potential output, leaving ample room for policymakers to close the gap through demand-side policies if they so chose to.” Personally, I ‘m a little less convinced by their positive conclusions than by their negative ones. But this paper should definitely put to the rest the idea (as in last year’s notorious CEA-chair letter) that it is obviously wrong — absurd and unserious — that a sufficient stimulus could deliver several years of 4 percent real growth, until GDP returned to its pre-recession trend. It may or may not be true, but it isn’t crazy.

Many of the arguments in my paper were also made in this valuable EPI report by Josh Bivens, reviving the old idea of a “high pressure economy”. Like me, Bivens argues that slow productivity growth is largely  attributable to low investment, which in turn is due to weak demand and slow wage growth, which blunts the incentive for business to invest in labor-saving technology. One important point that Bivens makes that I didn’t, is that much past variation in productivity growth has been transitory; forecasts of future productivity growth based on the past couple of years have consistently performed worse than forecasts based on longer previous periods. So historical evidence gives us no reason see the most recent productivity slowdown as permanent. My one quibble is that he only discusses faster productivity growth and higher inflation as possible outcomes of a demand-driven acceleration in wages. This ignores the third possible effect, redistribution from from profits to wages — in fact a rise in the labor share is impossible without a period of “overfull” employment.

Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari wrote a long post last fall on “diagnosing and treating the slow recovery.” Perhaps the most interesting thing here is that he poses the question at all. There’s a widespread view that once you correct for demographics, the exceptional performance of the late 1990s, etc., there’s nothing particularly slow about this recovery — no problem to diagnose or treat.

Another more recent post by Kashkari focuses on the dangers of forcing the Fed to mechanically follow a Taylor rule for setting interest rates. By his estimate, this would have led to an additional 2.5 million unemployed people this year. It’s a good illustration of the dangers of taking the headline measures of economic performance too literally. I also like its frank acknowledgement that the Fed — like all real world forecasters — rejects rational expectations in the models it uses for policymaking.

Kashkari’s predecessor Narayan Kocherlakota — who seems to agree more with the arguments in my paper — has a couple short but useful posts on his personal blog. The first, from a year ago, is probably the best short summary of the economic debate here that I’ve seen. Perhaps the key analytic point is that following a period of depressed investment, the economy may reach full employment given the existing capital stock while it is still well short of potential. So a period of rapid wage growth would not necessarily mean that the limits of expansionary policy have ben reached, even if those wage gains were fully passed through to higher prices. His emphasis:

Because fiscal policy has been too tight, we have too little public capital. … At the same time, physical investment has been too low… Conditional on these state variables, we might well be close to full employment.  … But, even though we’re close to full employment, there’s a lot of room for super-normal growth. Both capital and TFP are well below their [long run level].  The full-employment growth rate is going to be well above its long-run level for several years.  We can’t conclude the economy is overheating just because it is growing quickly.

His second post focuses on the straightforward but often overlooked point that policy should take into account not just our best estimates but our uncertainty about them, and the relative risks of erring on each side. And if there is even a modest chance that more expansionary policy could permanently raise productivity, then the risks are much greater on the over-contractionary side. [1] In particular, if we are talking about fiscal stimulus, it’s not clear that there are any costs at all. “Crowding out” is normally understood to involve a rise in interest rates and a shift from private investment to public spending. In the current setting, there’s a strong case that higher interest rates  at full employment would be a good thing (at least as long as we still rely on as the main tool of countercyclical policy). And it’s not obvious, to say the least, that the marginal dollar of private investment is more socially useful than many plausible forms of public spending. [2] Kashkari has a post making a similar argument in defense of his minority vote not to raise rates at the most recent FOMC meeting. (Incidentally, FOMC members blogging about their decisions is a trend to be encouraged.)

In a post from March which I missed at the time, Ryan Avent tries to square the circle of job-destroying automation and slow productivity growth. One half of the argument seems clearly right to me: Abundant labor and low wages discourage investment in productivity-raising technologies. As Avent notes, early British and even more American industrialization owe a lot to scarce labor and high wages. The second half of the argument is that labor is abundant today precisely because so much has been displaced by technology. His claim is that “robots taking the jobs” is consistent with low measured productivity growth if the people whose jobs are taken end up in a part of the economy with a much lower output per worker. I’m not sure if this works; this seems like the rare case in economics where an eloquent story would benefit from being re-presented with math.

Along somewhat similar lines, Simon Wren-Lewis points out that unemployment may fall because workers “price themselves into jobs” by accepting lower-wage (and presumably lower-productivity) jobs. But this doesn’t mean that the aggregate demand problem has been solved — instead, we’ve simply replaced open unemployment with what Joan Robinson called “disguised unemployment,” as some of people’s capacity for work continues to go to waste even while they are formally employed. “But there is a danger that central bankers would look at unemployment, … and conclude that we no longer have inadequate aggregate demand…. If demand deficiency is still a problem, this would be a huge and very costly mistake.”

Karl Smith at the Niskanen Center links this debate to the older one over the neutrality of money. Central bank interventions — and aggregate demand in general — are understood to be changes in the flow of money spending in the economy. But a lon-standing tradition in economic theory says that money should be neutral in the long run. As we are look at longer periods, changes in output and employment should depend more and more on real resources and technological capacities, and less and less on spending decisions — in the limit not at all. If you want to know why GDP fell in one quarter but rose in the next (this is something I always tell my undergraduates) you need to ask who chose to reduce their spending in the first period and who chose to increase it in the first. But if you want to know why we are materially richer than our grandparents, it would be silly to say it’s because we choose to spend more money. This is the reason why I’m a bit impatient with people who respond to the fact that, relative to the pre-2008 trend, output today has not recovered from the bottom of the recession, by saying “the trend doesn’t matter, deviations in output are always persistent.” This might be true but it’s a radical claim. It means you either take the real business cycle view that there’s no such thing as aggregate demand, even recessions are due to declines in the economy’s productive potential; or you must accept that in some substantial sense we really are richer than our grandparents because we spend more money. You can’t assert that GDP is not trend-stationary to argue against an output gap today unless you’re ready to accept these larger implications.

The invaluable Tom Walker has a fascinating post going back to even older debates, among 19th century anti-union and pro-union pamphleters, about whether there was a fixed quantity of labor to be performed and whether, in that case, machines were replacing human workers. The back and forth (more forth than back: there seem to be a lot more anti-labor voices in the archives) is fun to read, but what’s the payoff for todays’ debates?

The contemporary relevance of this excursion into the archives is that economic policy and economic thought walks on two legs. Conservative economists hypocritically but strategically embrace both the crowding out arguments for austerity and the projected lump-of-labor fallacy claims against pensions and shorter working time. They are for a “fixed amount” assumption when it suits their objectives and against it when it doesn’t. There is ideological method to their methodological madness. That consistency resolves itself into the “self-evidence” that nothing can be done.

That’s exactly right. When we ask why labor’s share has fallen so much over the past generation, we’re told it’s because of supply and demand — an increased supply of labor from China and elsewhere, and a decreased demand thanks to technology. But if it someone says that it might be a good idea then to limit the supply of labor (by lowering the retirement age, let’s say) and to discourage capital-intensive production, the response is “are you crazy? that will only make everyone poorer, including workers.” Somehow distribution is endogenous when it’s a question of shifts in favor of capital, but becomes exogenously fixed when it’s a question of reversing them.

A number of heterdox writers have identified the claim that productivity growth depends on demand as Verdoorn’s law (or the Kaldor-Verdoorn Law). For example, the Post Keynesian blogger Ramanan mentions it here and here. I admit I’m a bit dissatisfied with this “law”. It’s regularly asserted by heterodox people but you’ll scour our literature in vain looking for either a systematic account of how it is supposed to operate or quantitative evidence of how and how much (or whether) it does.

Adam Ozimek argues that the recent rise in employment should be seen as an argument for continued expansionary policy, not a shift away from it. After all, a few years ago many policymakers believed such a rise was impossible, since the decline in employment was supposed to be almost entirely structural.

Finally, Reihan Salam wants to enlist me for the socialist flank of a genuinely populist Trumpism. This is the flipside of criticism I’ve sometimes gotten for making this argument — doesn’t it just provide intellectual ammunition for the Bannon wing of the administration and its calls for vast infrastructure spending,  which is also supposed to boost demand and generate much faster growth? Personally I think you need to make the arguments for what you think is true regardless of their political valence. But I might worry about this more if I believed there was even a slight chance that Trump might try to deliver for his working-class supporters.


[1] Kocherlakota talks about total factor productivity. I prefer to focus on labor productivity because it is based on directly observable quantities, whereas TFP depends on estimates not only of the capital stock but of various unobservable parameters. The logic of the argument is the same either way.

[2] I made similar arguments here.


EDIT: My comments on the heterodox literature on the Kaldor-Verdoorn Law were too harsh. I do feel this set of ideas is underdeveloped, but there is more there than my original post implied. I will try to do a proper post on this work at some point.