Monday, February 20, 2012

Productive reasoning

Despite a wealth (heh) of economic statistics, American economists cannot fully and precisely characterize everything we need to know to make policy decisions about the structure of our economy. We have a number for worker productivity, but it's too uncertain to be useful:

[H]ere’s the rub: both of these corporate strategies— domestic productivity improvements and global supply chain management—show up as productivity gains in U.S. economic records. When federal statisticians calculate the nation’s economic output, what they are actually measuring is domestic “value added”—the dollar value of all sales minus the dollar value of all imports. “Productivity” is then calculated by dividing the quantity of value added by the number of American workers. American workers, however, often have little to do with the gains in productivity attributed to them. For instance, if Company A saves $250,000 simply by switching from a Japanese sprocket supplier to a much cheaper Chinese sprocket supplier, that change shows up as an increase in American productivity—just as if the company had saved $250,000 by making its warehouse operation in Chicago more efficient. 
I've previously taken productivity statistics at face value. Now I know they can't be. The essential argument I made at the link remains the same, but the magnitude of economic gains I can ascribe to labor is smaller.

Does this mean that I would now agree that corporate management deserves at least part of what they've creamed off the top of the nominal productivity gains of the past 30 years? Hell, no. The hollowing out that they have done accomplishes short run profit and big bonuses for them, but it's very very bad for the long term U.S. economy.

We need industrial policy that drives jobs back to the U.S. with competitiveness. That's the long run path to continued health, something the financial markets cannot possibly account for with a quarter-to-quarter mentality run amok. Every government policy that encourages hollowing out needs to be revisited.

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