Unemployment and Productivity Growth

I write here frequently about “the money view” — the idea that we need to see economic relationships as a system of money flows and money commitments, that is not reducible to the “real” production and exchange of goods and services. Seeing the money-game as a self-contained system is the first step; the next step is to ask how this system interacts with the concrete activities of production.

One way to look at this interface is through the concept of potential output, and its relationship to current expenditure, or demand. In the textbook view, there is no connection between the long-run evolution of potential output with demand. This is a natural view if you think that economic quantities have an independent material existence. First we have scarce resources, then the choice about which end to devote them to. Knut Wicksell suggests somewhere an evocative metaphor for this view of economic growth: It’s as if we had a cellar full off wine in barrels, which will improve with age. The problem of economic growth is then equivalent to choosing the optimal tradeoff between having better wine, and drinking it sooner than later. But whatever choice we make, all the wine is already there. Ramsey and Solow growth models, with their “golden rule” growth rate, are descriptions of this kind of problem. Aggregate demand doesn’t come into it.

From our point of view, on the other hand, production is a creative, social activity. Economic growth is not a matter of allowing an exiting material process to continue operating through time, but of learning how to work together in new ways. The fundamental problem is coordination, not allocation.  From this point of view, the technical conditions of production are endogenous to the organization of production, and the money payments that structure it. So it’s natural to think that aggregate expenditure could be an important factor determining the pace at which productive activity can be reorganized.

Now, whether demand actually does matter in the longer run is hotly debated point in heterodox economics. You can find very smart Post Keynesians like Steve Fazzari arguing that it does, and equally smart Marxists like Dumenil and Levy arguing that it does not. (Amitava Dutt has a good summary; Mark Setterfield has a good recent discussion of the formal issues of incorporating demand into Kaldorian growth models.) But within our framework, at least it is possible to ask the question.

Which brings me to this recent article in the Real World Economic Review. I don’t recommend the piece — it is not written in a way to inspire confidence. But it does make an interesting claim, that over the long run there is an inverse relationship between unemployment and labor productivity growth in the US, with average labor productivity growth equal to 8 minus the unemployment rate. This is consistent with the idea that demand conditions influence productivity growth, most obviously because pressures to economize on labor will be greater when labor is scarce.

A strong empirical regularity like this would be interesting, if it was real. But is it?

Here is one obvious test (a bit more sensible to me than the approach in the RWER article). The figure below shows the average US unemployment rate and real growth rate of hourly labor productivity for rolling ten-year windows.

It’s not exactly “the rule of 8” — the slope of the regression line is just a big greater than -0.5, rather than -1. But it is still a striking relationship. Ten-year periods with high growth of productivity invariably also have low unemployment rates; periods of high average unemployment are invariably also periods of slow productivity growth.

Of course these are overlapping periods, so this tells us much less than it would if they were independent observations. But the association of above-average productivity growth with below-average unemployment is indeed a historical fact, at least for the postwar US. (As it turns out, this relationship is not present in most other advanced countries — see below.) So what could it mean?

1. It might mean nothing. We really only have four periods here — two high-productivity-growth, low-unemployment periods, one in the 1950s-1960s and one in the 1990s; and two low-productivity-growth, high-unemployment periods, one in the 1970s-1980s and one in the past decade or so. It’s quite possible these two phenomena have separate causes that just happened to shake out this way. It’s also possible that a common factor is responsible for both — a new technology-induced investment boom is the obvious candidate.

2. It might be that high productivity growth leads to lower unemployment. The story here I guess would be the Fed responding to a positive supply shock. I don’t find this very plausible.

3. It might be that low unemployment, or strong demand in general, fosters faster productivity growth. This is the most interesting for our purposes. I can think of several versions of this story. First is the increasing-returns story that originally motivated Verdoorn’s law. High demand allows firms to produce further out on declining cost curves. Second, low unemployment could encourage firms to adopt more labor-saving production techniques. Third, low unemployment might associated with more rapid movement of labor from lower-productivity to higher-productivity activities. (In other words, the relationship might be due to lower visible unemployment being associated with lower disguised unemployment.) Or fourth, low unemployment might be associated with a relaxing of the constraints that normally limit productivity-boosting investment — demand itself, and also financing. In any of these stories, the figure above shows a causal relationship running from the x-axis to the y-axis.

One scatterplot of course hardly proves anything. I’m really just posing the question. Still, this one figure is enough to establish one thing: A positive relationship between unemployment and labor productivity has not been the dominant influence on either variable in the postwar US. In particular, this is strong evidence against the idea the idea of technological unemployment, beloved by everyone from Jeremy Rifkin to Lawrence Summers. (At least as far as this period is concerned — the future could be different.) To tell a story in which paid labor is progressively displaced by machines, you must have a positive relationship between labor productivity and unemployment. But historically, high unemployment has been associated with slower growth in labor productivity, not faster. So we can say with confidence that whatever has driven changes in unemployment over the past 75 years, it has not been changes in the pace at which human labor is replaced by technology.

The negative relationship between unemployment and productivity growth, whatever it means, turns out to be almost unique to the US. Of the dozen or so other countries I looked at, the only one with a similar pattern is Japan, and even there the relationship is weaker. I honestly don’t know what to make of this. But if you’re interested, the other scatterplots are below the fold.

Note: Labor productivity is based on real GDP per hour, from the BLS International Labor Comparisons project; unemployment is the harmonized unemployment rate for all persons from the OECD Main Economic Indicators database. I used these because they are (supposed to be) defined consistently across countries and were available on FRED. Because the international data covers shorter periods than the US data does, I used 8-year windows instead of 10-year windows.