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By George P. Brockway, originally published September/October 2000

2000-9-10 New Use for a Bad Idea - title.jpg

IN ECONOMICS no bad idea goes unused. This is perhaps to be expected in a discipline that prides itself on being the science of the efficient allocation of scarce resources. Ideas are hard to come by in the best of times. With many hundreds of doctoral candidates looking for original dissertation subjects, and many thousands of tenure-track assistant professors looking for profound article topics, nothing that looks like an idea can be allowed to waste its fragrance on the desert air. In addition, there are the diurnal needs of business-page journalists and bond salesmen. Not to mention the problems of NEW LEADER columnists.

A subject that has met all the above needs for at least the past quarter century is the productivity index. It is with mixed feelings that I report on a quite new use that has been thought up for this fallacious procedure. Since, as we shall see, the new use is in the very highest reaches of national policymaking, it is in an especially bad place for a bad idea.

The February 8, 1982, column in this space was titled “Productivity: The New Shell Game.” On May 28, 1984, “The Productivity Scam” appeared. The third antiproductivity- index piece had to wait until  May 19, 1993, and the fourth is here and now. Productivity being a protean idea, each column is concerned with a different use of the index.

True to its metaphor of a shell game, the earliest column said that in the new game each of the three shells had a “pea” under it. The first pea, “which always turns up on metropolitan bars and suburban bridge tables,” was that “it just seems people aren’t willing to work the way we did when we were young.”

Next was the “America has gone soft pea.” We let them beat us in Vietnam; investigative journalism got out of hand over Watergate; and now a court has said that creationism isn’t science. It’s hard to tell what the country stands for anymore. It’s no wonder that productivity is down and we have to have this recession to get us back on the track.

Under the third shell was the “archaic industry pea.” Our productivity is down because we don’t invest enough, because we don’t save enough, because we tax business-too much.

In other words, the productivity “peas” were Reaganomic explanations of the recession then stagnating. Regardless of the shell we chose, we got a pea; and regardless of the pea we got, we lost.

By May 1984, the productivity focus had narrowed, with this conclusion: “The uproar about labor productivity is a scam to distract attention from a massive shift in the distribution of the goods of the economy. The share of nonmanagerial labor is being reduced; the share of managerial labor is being increased; and the share of those who do no labor, who merely have money, is being increased most of all. This is what Reaganomics (or, if you will, Volckerism) is all about, and the Atari Democrats have been gulled into going along with it.”

(Those whom the late Robert Lekachman, a wise and witty contributor to this journal, dubbed Atari Democrats called themselves New Democrats. Atari was at one time the leading producer of electronic games, and was early seduced abroad by the promise of cheap labor. What became of it, deponent knoweth not.)

Nine years later (May 19, 1993), the focus had narrowed again. The talk was all about downsizing, a nasty and disgraceful business practice that continues to this day.

The productivity index is thus one of the most powerful ideas of our time. It has malignly affected the lives of millions of men and women, the fortunes of thousands of enterprises, and the economies of nations.  It is a tragedy of almost universal scope.

The basic idea of the index is sound enough. Output is divided by input to determine how many units of input achieve a unit of output. The result is an index number that can be compared with other numbers similarly derived. A single index number, of course, is almost useless; but much can be learned from comparisons, and they are of great and daily use in business management. The current performance of a company’s sales (or any other) department can be compared with. its performance in prior years, or with the performance of corresponding departments of the particular industry as a whole. Banks routinely analyze their customers’ profit and loss statements in this way, and trade associations frequently do the same for their members.

It must be confessed that executives sometimes make unreasonable use of the comparisons. A sales department may be faulted for a falling sales index, while the sales force argues that the quality of the product has declined, or that the advertising has been inadequate, or that the sales representative suffer from stress caused by driving poorly equipped automobiles.

Rumbles from the executive floor suggest that the sales reps are too well paid, or that there are too many of them, or that some territories are not worth covering.  This is the way that downsizing begins.  Every job in every department is ultimately at risk.

Years ago a chapter in a tome on book publishing started this way: “There are two simple principles by which the business thinking of a publishing house should be guided.  They are (1) Reducing costs by $1,000 has roughly the same effect on the profit and loss statement as increasing sales by $25,000.  (2) You have to spend a dollar to make a dollar.

Downsizing tends to forget the second principle, and also the greater principle that the human beings who are so easily hired and fired are not a means to an end but are ends in themselves.  But the ethical objections to downsizing shouldn’t allow us to decide that there are not solid, hard-nosed, business-is-the-only-thing objections to the national productivity index.

THE INDEX numbers are simple fractions:  national output for a certain period in dollars (because we can’t add shoes and ships and sealing wax) divided by the hours worked by everyone engaged in production, whether paid or not.  Fractions, of course, are not unequivocal; you can increase their value either by increasing the nominator or by decreasing the denominator (2/3 and 1/2 are both greater than 1/3).  So you can increase a productivity index number either by increasing “dollars of output” or by decreasing “hours worked.”  As we shall see, the hours present a special problem.  Consider some examples of how the index works.

First, microeconomically:  Think of a journeyman plumber whose output is x, whose hours worked is y, and whose productivity is therefore x/y.  Suppose by taking on a plumber’s helper (a human being) he increases his output 20 per cent.  Being a rational person, you might conclude that such an increase in output would result in a substantial increase in productivity, but you would be sadly mistaken.  According to the formula, his productivity becomes 1.2x/2.0y, or .6x/y, and thus has fallen 40 percent.

We get similar results macroeconomically.  Take the 5.4 million or so people counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as unemployed. (There are about 10 million more who aren’t counted because they have a part-time job, or are too discouraged to continue looking for work, or are too turned off ever to have seriously entertained lawful employment).

Let’s accept (for argument only) that the conservative press is correct in saying the 4 percent of our civilian workforce officially designated unemployed are so careless, stupid, uneducated, arrogant, sickly or pregnant that they’re unlikely, if employed, to produce on the average more than a third as much as an equal number of those who are currently employed.  Even at that level, if we could find the wit and will to employ these people on this basis, we could increase our gross domestic product by 1.2 percent, or about $130 billion a year.

Being still a rational person, you might think such a tidy sum would increase our productivity, but again you would be sadly mistaken.  Productivity is still output divided by hours worked or x/y.  After finding jobs for the 4 percent of our civilian workforce that is now unemployed, our productivity becomes 1.012x/1.04y, a fall of 2.7 percent.

So if we really believe in the conventional theory of productivity, we must deny help to our plumber and jobs to the unemployed.  Unfortunately, a large majority of the members of the American Economic Association do believe in the theory.

A couple of other examples may clinch the case.

A young slugger lived up to his promise by hitting a grand slam home run his first time at bat in the majors.  His next time up, there were only two men on base.  His manager yanked him because (aside from drawing a walk or being hit by a pitch, neither of which would count as a time at bat) his productivity could only go down.

Then there was the unsung predecessor of Tiger Woods who hit a hole in one on the first hole of a club tournament, but retired when his drive on the second hole stopped rolling two feet short of the cup. “My productivity could only go down,” he lamented as he gave his clubs to his caddy and took up water polo to sublimate his aggressions[1].

THE THING about “hours worked” is that Gertrude Stein couldn’t have said “hour is an hour is an hour” because they aren’t. I was a lousy salesman, though I worked doggedly at it for almost five unproductive and depressing years. Many years later I became a moderately successful CEO of a small company and worked doggedly at that. I put in approximately the same number of hours a day as a salesman as I did as a CEO. After all, there are only so many hours in a day. But the value of my work as CEO really and truly was vastly greater than the value of my salesmanship, and you may believe I was paid more for it, too. Adding those different hours together in the denominator is less sensible than adding apples and oranges.

Karl Marx[2] faced a similar problem when he was wrestling with his theory of surplus value. He finally declared victory and wrote: “We therefore save ourselves a superfluous operation, and simplify our analysis, by the assumption, that the labor of the workman employed by the capitalist is unskilled average labor.” If this was a valid assumption in his day (and it probably wasn’t), it certainly is not in ours.

John Maynard Keynes also felt a need to devise a homogeneous unit of labor. He wrote: “Insofar as different grades and kinds of labor and salaried assistance enjoy a more or less fixed relative remuneration, the quantity of employment can be sufficiently defined for our purpose by taking an hour’s employment of ordinary labor as our unit and weighting an hour’s employment of special labor in proportion to its remuneration, i.e., an hour of special labor remunerated at double ordinary rates will count as two units.”

The minimum wage (currently $5.15 an hour) may be taken as a homogeneous unit of labor. But why bother? It is merely a multiple of a homogeneous unit we already had ($1.00) and tells us nothing new.

Unless you naturally think like an economist, you may wonder why the denominator of the productivity fraction is “hours worked” rather than “dollars paid for labor.” The deep secret is that economists, like well-bred  characters in an early 19th-century English novel, are with a few exceptions embarrassed by talk about money. General equilibrium analysis, the most fashionable economic theory at the bulk of elite American universities, can find no place for money in its doctrine. Even monetarism, despite its name, is scornful of the stuff we pay our bills with, which it speaks of as “nominal” money, and insists that what it calls “real” money is what matters, although no such thing exists. (If you’ve read much medieval philosophy, you may find such talk familiar.)

There is another problem with the denominator. We learned in school that the factors of production are land, labor and capital. Some add technology, and Adam Smith wrote of a propensity to barter. In any case, labor is merely one of the factors of production; yet the productivity index treats it as the only one.

To be sure, labor may be the largest factor. A quasi-constant of the economy is that the cost of labor currently runs about 60 per cent of GDP. But the cost of capital-the money spent for interest by nonfinancial, nonagricultural businesses -has increased roughly five and a half times in the past 40 years, partly because the Federal Reserve has increased interest rates, and partly because today American business relies much more on borrowed money than it used to. Common laborers, not Protestant financiers, are now the austere actors on our economic stage[3].

This shift in roles may be good or bad or indifferent, but the productivity index, no matter how constructed, will at best only call our attention to the fact that a shift has occurred. It will neither judge the desirability of the shift nor tell us what to do about it. Econometrics-c-playing with statistics-is the beginning, not the end, of economics.

ALL THAT said, we come to the new use of the productivity index mentioned at the start. I’m sorry, but I can’t say who invented the new use. It was a stroke of genius, even though the Federal Reserve Board had already pioneered the implausible idea of using high productivity (according to the index) as an excuse for trying to reduce production. I’m sorry again, but I can’t say, at least with a straight face, why we should reduce production.

The new scheme goes like this: (1) Production is produced by workers exercising their productivity. (2) The population of workers increases about 1 per cent a year. (3) The productivity index, fallacies and errors and all, increases about 1.5 per cent a year. (4) Put them together, and you get 2.5 per cent a year as the rate at which a well-mannered economy should expand. (5) The economy has been expanding at better than that rate in every year except one in the last eight. (The low one was 2.4 per cent in 1993.) Conclusion: Look out! It must be overheating!

Well, I ask you!

I regret to have to add that the Democratic Party Platform Committee listened solemnly to this kind of stuff. I doubt that the Republicans bothered their heads about it. All they need to know on earth is that a tax cut is beauty, and beauty is a tax cut, especially a tax cut for millionaires. I regret further to have to admit that the economics profession is careless about such nonsense. The other day I read a paper by a friend of mine that was decorated by several equations in which a symbol for productivity occurred. I objected that the symbol stood for a fallacy, and that his equations were therefore fallacious.

He laughed. “Everybody does it,” he said. “You’re expected to do it. It doesn’t matter.”

Well, I’ve already asked you.

The New Leader

[1] Ed:  As a similar tale goes, a golfer played at Pine Valley, arguably the best golf course on earth, and in the first four holes had two birdies and two eagles. One eagle was a hole-in-one.  He was 6 under par.  The fourth green is back at the club house.  The golfer walked off the course and into the bar and would not come out as he’d only screw up the round.

[2] Ed:  Though likely not as a salesman….

[3] Ed: emphasis mine

By George P. Brockway, originally published May 7, 1999

5-7-99-why-nairu-is-nonesense-title

MANY YEARS AGO, when I was a college undergraduate, there was some talk on campus about The Fountainhead[1], a massive novel by Ayn Rand. I was aware of it because one of my close friends told me a bit about it, and the older brother of a classmate had edited it, but I never read the book nor did I see the movie. Perhaps it was too huge for me (I was reading Ernest Hemingway‘s stories and Gertrude Stein‘s scribblings). Perhaps I was sufficiently law-abiding to be put off by the novel’s intensely self-centered architect hero[2], whose action at the end was the principal topic of what I heard (he destroyed an allegedly supremely beautiful building he had built because the owner wanted some changes).

I never read Atlas Shrugged either, or any of the other works by Ayn Rand, and I was not aware that she was a self- invented economist until I became one myself. Even then I was-and still am-put off by the name she gave to her philosophy (“objectivism“). But despite my ignorance of what she has written, I am prepared to claim that she has had a great and salutary effect on the present and possible prosperity of the United States of America. Maybe of the world.

One of Ayn Rand’s disciples was Alan Greenspan, who grew up to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. So far as I know, Greenspan has never made a public reference to her, and so far as I am aware, only three of her doctrines may have slipped into the proceedings of the august body he heads. He has spoken some odd words on the movement of the price of gold as an indicator of the future course of the price level. His aversion to regulation of the rogue multitrillion-dollar derivatives market may be linked in his mind with the behavior of the hero of The Fountainhead. And almost alone among the public men of our time, he doesn’t believe in the barbarous theory of a natural rate of unemployment.

In any case, I suspect that her influence has been both more profound and more beneficial than her ideas. As a result of his association with her, Greenspan learned how to be at once the consummate insider and the consummate outsider.

Because he is a consummate insider, he got to where he is. Because he is a consummate outsider, he has not been overawed by the high-powered bankers and economists with whom he does business. Because he is not overawed by these worthies, we have not had a boost in the interest rate since March 1994, and in fact had three quarter-of-a -point cuts last summer and fall.

These 60-odd months without a rate increase constitute the longest, indeed the only, period of tranquility the Federal Reserve Board has allowed the American economy in the 30 years since the Reserve launched its all-out war against inflation-which propelled the Consumer Price Index from 36.7 in 1969 to 99.6 in 1984, a record-breaking and stupefying leap of 272 per cent in 14 years. It is for the present period of tranquility (and for its continuance, if he can bring it off) that Greenspan is renowned today and will be forever famous in the annals of economics and of political economy.

There is no doubt that if Greenspan had polled the economics profession and the banking profession he would have had them almost solidly against him. On July 19, 1995, Greenspan said in Congressional testimony, “I don’t believe that any particular unemployment rate-that 5 per cent or 5.5 per cent or whatever numbers we’re dealing with-is something desirable in and of itself. I don’t believe that.”

Neither the New York Times nor the Wall Street Journal reported this testimony (but THE NEW LEADER did, and I have the videotape). As I said at the time, this was earthshaking testimony. It directly contradicted what then was the first or second most sacred economic law, namely the natural rate of unemployment, a.k.a. the nonaccelerating inflation rate of unemployment, a.k.a. NAIRU. It is possible, but not certain, that the ancient “law” of supply and demand had a tighter grip than NAIRU on the hearts and minds of economists and those who pretended to an interest in economics. Yet Greenspan contradicted this barbarous doctrine, and got away with it.

As it happened, the economy jogged along pretty well. The stock market boomed, because the Baby Boomers were worried about saving for retirement and didn’t know where else to put their money. As the market soared, more and more of them made nice killings and began to spend some of their capital gains. Retail sales, especially of automobiles and other big-ticket items, picked up. Unemployment began to fall, and so, to almost everyone’s surprise, did inflation.

After a while the media began looking for someone to give the credit to. President Clinton was willing, but no matter what he claimed, and no matter what photo ops were arranged, people kept saying that he was too preoccupied with impeachment to run the country. Perhaps they were right, and, obviously the Republicans were too preoccupied, for the same reason.

Greenspan was available, and an interview with him was almost as good copy as the stories quoting Casey Stengel used to be. He talked about the free market, so he became the leader of the free world.

Of course, I wasn’t there, but I have a clear picture of what happened next. At meeting after meeting, the Federal Reserve Board staffers brought in sheaves of disturbing figures showing that Wendy’s in Sandusky was having trouble holding dishwashers and hiring cashiers; that Kmart in New Jersey had constant openings for stock clerks; that Boeing in Seattle was looking for riveters. Everywhere, in other words, the unemployment rate was falling-falling steadily below the rate at which all the bankers in the country knew, and all the mainline economists in the country absolutely knew, that inflation definitely had to break out again. The financial press talked nervously of the importance of being ahead of the curve, and Greenspan himself spoke of making a pre-emptive strike against inflation.

Nevertheless, Greenspan has not acted. He tried jawboning the stock market-and quickly learned that his reputation as economic wise man of the Western World was in jeopardy because practically no one was in favor of repeating the 1987 market crash.

Lately he has made a series of speeches suggesting that an increase in the productivity index explains our “miraculous” combination of falling unemployment and falling inflation. Since the productivity index is a fraction (output divided by hours worked), its value rises when the denominator falls. Greater productivity, therefore, is hardly an explanation of increasing employment.

WELL, maybe Greenspan can pull it off, but it would help if he could make clear why NAIRU has not performed as advertised. Since the business and financial press has not been able to do that either, the professional belief in NAIRU has been muted but not stilled. The true believers are prepared to stay the course, because they have been given no reason not to.

We shall continue to live in fear that our tranquil days of steadily expanding prosperity will soon be over unless somebody sets them straight. So, it might as well be me, here and now.

It isn’t enough to remind the believers that not so long ago they insisted the telltale rate of unemployment was 7.0 per cent, then 6.5 per cent, then 6.0 per cent, then 5.5 per cent, then 5.0 per cent, then 4.5 per cent, and now it must be 4.0 per cent or lower. They shrug off this embarrassment with the complaint that the available statistics are imperfect or that, as Humphrey Bogart said when told there were no waters in Casablanca, they were misinformed.

It also is not enough to show them that every one of the nine recessions since World War II has been preceded by boosts in the interest rate. The boosts were said to be necessary to nip inflation in the bud. But in fact inflation accelerated more rapidly after the boosts than before them. Another fact: In all the years since World War II, no matter what the Federal Reserve Board has tried, the price level has fallen only once, and in that year (1955) the interest rate fell too. Again, of course, the statistics are imperfect. And without a coherent theory everything is anecdotal, the diehards argue, as the doctors did when Linus Pauling tried to tell them about Vitamin C.

Yet the reason NAIRU is nonsense is not far to seek. To begin with, the interest rate and the unemployment rate are both percentages, just as apples and oranges are both fruits. Interest is a direct cost or an opportunity cost on both sides of every economic transaction. Labor costs are similarly universal. But interest costs are closely uniform for comparable risks throughout the economy; labor costs vary widely from industry to industry, job to job, locality to locality, and (shamefully) from ethnic group to ethnic group as well as from gender to gender.

The two percentages are so radically different in composition that NAIRU theorists themselves never had a theory of their interaction. All they had were some empirical observations that occasionally made pretty graphs, like the Phillips curve. As with all empirical observations, though, theirs were liable to falsification by events.

The serious recessions of 1974-75 and 1980-82 were certainly falsification enough. But those events were disregarded, perhaps because practitioners of this dismal science tend to believe that dismal outcomes must be true, while relatively happy outcomes (like the present situation) must nurture some occult seeds of their own distraction.

Moreover, a 1 point fall in the unemployment rate causes little more than a 1 point rise in the national wage bill (which itself is only three-fifths of the costs of production), whereas a 1 point rise in the basic interest rate (now 4.75 per cent) eventually results in a drop of about 20 per cent in the purchasing power of money (which is, of course, equivalent to a 20 per cent rise of the price level, or a pretty stiff dose of inflation).

Far more important, the interest hike would produce a 16.7 per cent decline in the borrowing power of money, resulting, as we shall see, in a 33 per cent drop in the value of investments that must be made to keep the capitalist system going. If the interest rate is 5 per cent, $500 will get you a year’s use of $10,000. You can invest that $10,000 in an enterprise of your choice, and, unless you are unwise or unlucky, you will earn back your $500 interest plus a profit to boot and be ready to do more of the same.

But if the rate rises to 6 per cent, you will be able to borrow only $8,333 with your $500. Worse yet, the purchasing power of the $8,333 you borrow will have been reduced 20 per cent; so in the end you will have only $6,667 worth of goods to invest in, compared with the $10,000 worth you would have had before the interest hike.

Any way you look at it, the “punishment” of a 1 per cent increase in the interest rate does not fit the “crime” of a 1 per cent decrease in the unemployment rate.

Federal Reserve Bulletin please copy.

The New Leader

[1] Ed: Not likely as an undergraduate.  The author graduated college in 1936.  The Fountainhead was published in 1943

[2] Ed: Howard Roark is no more self-centered, say, than Donald Trump…

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