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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

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By George P. Brockway, originally published September 6, 1996

1996-9-6 Caught in a Boom Market Title

ON OCTOBER 15, 1929, less than two weeks before the worst crash in the history of any stock market anywhere, one of America’s most renowned economists, Professor Irving Fisher of Yale, announced that stock prices would be “a good deal higher … within a few months.”

Fisher’s prophecy is as good today as it was on the eve of the Depression. All it took to make the market go up then was an influx of money, and that is all it takes now. Per contra, without an influx of money nobody, not even the wisest professors in the land, can induce the market to levitate.

The stock exchanges are, after all, among the few remaining places where the law of supply and demand still runs according to script. Brokers, bankers and publicists who operate in the shadow of the exchanges come to feel the law obtains always and everywhere, imposing market discipline as it goes. But as anyone who has noticed the programmed gyrations of prices in malls and supermarkets knows, this is not the case.

For the law to work, supply must be limited. It no longer is limited in most transactions of daily life. When a bookstore runs out of a bestseller today, it can have fresh stock tomorrow. If you want a new automobile, there are, as my Vermont father-in-law once remarked, plenty of people ready to sell you one.

Supply used to be limited in isolated provincial markets of the sort familiar to Adam Smith, and it is still limited in the narrow confines of Wall Street. Only the issues of a certain number of companies, and only a certain number of shares of each, are admitted for trading on the exchanges. When millions of people with money in their fists start demanding to purchase some of the finite supply, the old law comes into play and prices go up. We have a bull market.

The 1920s upsurge was generated by what may be called exuberant greed. The Great War had liberated and greatly enlarged the middle class. Wall Street promised more liberation. Today greed is certainly just as crucial, but the mood is noticeably different, more desperate than exuberant. For a moment, it seemed like morning in America, but the Baby Boomer generation has grown up and begun to worry about its retirement years, because suddenly they bode to be less golden than those of its parents.

The problem is, at least initially, demographic. Generation X (or whatever it may ultimately be named) is substantially less numerous than its parents’ generation. It is said, therefore, that the Social Security and Medicare trust funds will be depleted, and that the burgeoning costs of these “entitlements” will fall on a smaller number of taxpayers. Much as they love their folks, the young are expected to revolt. Boomers are advised to start looking out for themselves.

Where to look is the question. Many financial advisers answer that, over the years, the stock market has out-performed all other kinds of investment – Treasury bonds, foreign currencies, real estate, collectibles, gold, pork bellies, the lot. The difficulty that few citizens are qualified to play the market seems solved by the existence of 7,000 or more mutual funds whose comparative performances are widely rated. It is unlikely there are 7,000 fund managers more qualified today than Irving Fisher was in his day, but let that pass: The 7,000 funds now manage close to $3 trillion.

Unfortunately, this astronomical sum must be multiplied many times if it is to do the job expected of it. The Boomer objective, after all, is a decent retirement income. Not to be too ambitious, let us say something around $35,000 a year, which is somewhat more than the present median family income. This will certainly not be enough if Medicare is privatized any further, or if the Social Security COLA is eliminated. Nor will it be enough if inflation continues at its current “optimal” rate of 2.5 per cent, since over 10 years this will raise the price level 31 per cent. We can’t, however, allow for every contingency, or we would give up at once.

So let’s assume $35,000 a year, and let’s assume further that Social Security will somehow be good for $10,000, leaving our typical Boomer with $25,000 a year to coax from Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), 401(k) schemes and other available fliers. Right now the average stock’s dividend is running at not much more than 2 per cent. At this rate, to rake in $25,000 a year in dividends, our Boomer’s portfolio would have to be worth roughly a million and a quarter.

Although I am no Irving Fisher, nor was meant to be, I think I shall not go far wrong in prophesying that the market will continue climbing, because the desperate Boomers are going to have to put their retirement money somewhere; and regardless of what Bob Dole’s new supply-side friends say, the country isn’t full of enterprises crying for new capital. As long as the Boomers’ annual contributions to IRAs and 40 1(k)s go into the market faster than other people take their money out, the weary bull is bound to keep scrabbling upward, at least for a while.

BUT ALL good things come to an end, and we have already received intimations of the mortality of this one. There are, to begin with, the worries about our corporations’ abilities to compete in the new global village, plus the uneasy suspicion that the information superhighway may turn out to be a curiosity, like the English Chunnel[1]. The principal sign of danger, however, is the 2 per cent dividend rate previously mentioned. Stocks paying only 2 per cent are an acceptable gamble as long as capital gains keep piling up. When they start falling (or turn negative), the stodgy 6 or 7 per cent yield of the Treasury long bond looks like an increasingly desirable port in what could develop into an unpleasant storm.

In 1983, when the present bull market began, the dividend yield of the Standard & Poor’s 500 was more than 6 per cent. When (post hoc and probably propter hoc) the dividend rate fell below 3 per cent, we had the “corrective crash” of 1987. Four years later, the rate had worked its way back to 4 per cent. Now, ominously, it is the lowest it has ever been.

It is by no means certain that even a 2 per cent dividend rate can last. The economy is strong enough to frighten the Federal Reserve Board, and all that, but the rate of profit has been maintained to a considerable extent by downsizing, and the thing about that is it frequently means exactly what it says. For when a company cuts staff, it cuts output, too-unless it has previously been unlucky or unbelievably inefficient or surprised by overwhelming technological change.

The trick is to cut jobs and wages faster than output. If a firm can manage that, its “productivity” will rise, though its production will probably fall. The lower cost per item produced may delight its economist and please its cost accountant; nonetheless, its total profits are likely to fall with its total output. Indeed, a company can be the most “productive” outfit in an industry (as Nissan’s and Toyota’s American automobile plants were rated last year), yet operate at a loss (as the Nissan and Toyota factories did).

For the nation all the time, and for the stock market in the medium and long run, what counts is production, not productivity. Production-goods and services created-can be used and enjoyed, and if so, can yield profits. Productivity which is merely an index number, a ratio of output to hours worked, nothing tangible – is not good to eat and pays no dividends.

The way things stand, if dividends fall much lower, capital gains will dry up as cautious money leaves stocks for bonds; the bull market will 1996-9-6 Caught in a Boom Market Nissanapproach its end. At some point before the end, or soon after, fall. Ever mounting capital gains would be a thing of the past, and to the extent that market and economic troubles are due to vanishing profits in relation to stock prices, an interest rate hike would have the wrong effect. The case for lowering the rate is not much happier, given the present temper of the Reserve Board. The initial consequence would naturally be to raise the price of bonds and, almost simultaneously, of stocks. The price/earnings ratio would stabilize, but again without encouraging capital gains. On the other hand, costs, sales and the profits of ordinary businesses would gradually improve. Up with this the Board could not put, so back up would go the interest rate.  Therefore, for the Boomer generation to enjoy a reasonably comfortable retire there will no doubt be calls for the Federal Reserve Board to intervene, and the Board will be tempted to comply. Besides wringing its hands, it will have two choices: to raise the interest rate, or to lower it. It will be leery of raising it, because someone on its staff may remember that in 1929 and 1930 the Reserve’s tight money policy was blamed for triggering the Crash and then turning it into the Depression.

In any event, raising the interest rate would lower the price of bonds; and almost immediately the price of every income-earning asset, including common shares, would follow. In other words, the stock market would fall, or at the minimum be impeded in its climb. In addition, the costs, and hence the prices, of ordinary businesses would sooner or later increase, and their sales and profits would fall. Ever mounting capital gains would be a thing of the past, and to the extent that market and economic troubles are due to vanishing profits in relation to stock prices, an interest rate hike would have the wrong effect.

The case for lowering the rate is not much happier, given the present temper of the Reserve Board. The initial consequence would naturally be to raise the price of bonds and, almost simultaneously, of stocks. The price/earnings ratio would stabilize, but again without encouraging capital gains. On the other hand, costs, sales and the profits of ordinary businesses would gradually improve. Up with this the Board could not put, so back up would go the interest rate.

Therefore, for the Boomer generation to enjoy a reasonably comfortable retirement, as every generation should, it can no longer consult its narrow self-interest. Instead, it must look forward to, and participate in, and help organize, a great surge in the gross domestic product. This can be accomplished in only one way in a free society. It is not enough for goods to be manufactured and services to be made available. To contribute to private profits and common wealth, commodities must be sold, and someone must be both willing and able to buy them. Otherwise, sensible producers will cut output and make up for the resulting drop in profits by laying off employees.

Mass industry requires mass consumption. But that will require a more generous and hopeful and responsible attitude toward the distribution of income than has been seen, in this country for many long years.

The New Leader

[1] Ed – so much for prognostication, neither turned out to be “merely a curiosity.”

By George P. Brockway, originally published January 29, 1996

1996-1-29 The Assumed Employment Virus Title

I SEE BY THE PAPERS that big corporations are downsizing their economics departments. IBM and GE have eliminated theirs altogether. Others are keeping a few people on for special projects, but still are outsourcing from one think tank or another when they want to know about the economy.

There is poetic justice in this, for economists have not been bashful about claiming credit (if that is the right word) for developing the theory of productivity. That allows the sensitive readers of the Wall Street Journal to call their brokers and take a position in the stock of any company announcing its intention to fire 10,000 or more employees, particularly those with 20 years of service or better.

I do not mean to gloat. Some of my best friends are economists; moreover, intellectual life in America is thin enough without sending more PhDs down to swell the ranks of telemarketers anxious to interact with me during my happy hour about a new exercise machine or a new insurance policy. No, I don’t mean to gloat, but I do intend to seize the day to fret a bit about the state of the profession.

I became concerned about the profession when I sent my brother a copy of my first book. He thanked me in due course, and congratulated me, but he didn’t pretend he had read it, nor did he promise to read it. “After all,” he wrote, “I doubt that I’ve ever in my life read an economics book straight through. You can hardly expect me to break that record now, even for my kid brother.” So far as I know, he never did.

My brother was not a dope. He was far from adopting what James Truslow Adams a half century ago called “the mucker pose.” He held both the baccalaureate and a doctorate from Harvard. He traveled widely and read widely. All his life he was involved in community affairs. But he couldn’t be bothered with economics. When I pressed him for an explanation, he said, “You people claim to be scientists, but you disagree with each other about everything. No two of you speak the same language. Some of you seem not speak any language.”

Although my brother was not a dope, I’m inclined to think that in this case he was almost precisely wrong. Economics is not a science, and the discipline’s practitioners tend to agree too much. Especially about the wrong questions.

One of the puzzles of contemporary economics is the number and variety of theories – including those most prominent in the universities today – that trace their origin to sensationally different journal articles, yet all end up advocating laissez-faire or something remarkably close to it. The puzzle is of course the greater because, not so long ago, the Great Depression and World War II seemed to have laid laissez-faire permanently to rest.

General Equilibrium Analysis, Monetarism, the Neoclassical Synthesis, and Rational Expectations are among the schools affected. In computer jargon, one might say that a virus has attacked them all, disrupting programs, infiltrating compositions, corrupting data bases.

We didn’t use to think of mathematics or logic in such highly charged terms. We were well aware that an error at any point in an exercise would render all that followed suspect; but our exercises used to be more insulated from each other, so that our assumptions were more frequently considered.

Be that as it may, I believe it can be demonstrated that something like a virus has indeed infected most contemporary models of the economy. We may give the virus a name: the Assumed Employment Virus.  For it is an assumption or presumption that the economy is operating either actually or effectively under conditions of full employment.

The Assumed Employment Virus appeared almost contemporaneously with The Wealth of Nations in 1776, but no one noticed for a century and a half. It was not until the Great Depression that providing employment was recognized as an economic problem. Adam Smith, for example, devotes a few pages to the comparative wages of different “employments” and to the “price of labor” generally. Yet the only unemployment he takes notice of is the seasonal one of bricklayers and masons. He pays some attention to the “Poor Laws” (which for 400 years were a staple of British fretfulness, the way “welfare as we know it” continues to occupy us), but seems not to have considered the possibility of, and need for, regular employment for the poor.

The “classics,” or most economists from Smith to the middle of the 20th century (except Karl Marx), presumed that all laborers could get jobs, no matter how bad the times, if they merely lowered their wage demands to what entrepreneurs offered. It was not suggested that in bad times (or at any time) entrepreneurs should pay a living wage at the expense of the going rate of profits. Bob Cratchit was a fortunate man, even though he couldn’t afford adequate medical attention for Tiny Tim. In modern jargon, entrepreneurs were forced by market discipline to cut wages. Laborers were free to accept jobs that would allow them to starve to death. As Phil Gramm and Dick Armey taught undergraduates only the other day in Texas, those who lacked jobs were unemployed because they didn’t want to work. There was no such thing as involuntary unemployment.

It remained for John Maynard Keynes to demonstrate why involuntary unemployment is a fact of laissez-faire life. He observed “that men are disposed … to increase their consumption as their income increases, but not by as much as the increase in their income.” If the resulting weakness in demand is not countered by investment (sooner or later by government investment), production will be decreased, and workers will become unemployed – involuntarily.

Laissez-faire theorists have tried to refute Keynes’ demonstration by presenting arguments that unemployment cannot be reduced to zero. The Monetarist Milton Friedman came up with the first of these -the Natural Rate of Unemployment (whatever is natural is ipso facto involuntary), now usually referred to as the Non-Accelerating-Inflation Rate of Unemployment, or NAIRU. It has also been called the Normal Rate, the Warranted Rate, and (in a triumphal oxymoron) the Full Employment Rate.

There is a sort of reason behind even that last name. All of the involuntary unemployment arguments maintain either that unemployment cannot be reduced below the mentioned rate, or that if it is temporarily reduced (and it can only be reduced temporarily), it will be followed by some unacceptable consequence, usually inflation without limit. If at some point policy forbids, for whatever reason, further reductions in unemployment, why not call that point Full Employment?

The Rational Expectationists, whose leader was recently crowned with a Nobel Memorial Prize, make the problem easy for themselves. It is, they say, rational to expect the economy to behave as the classics would have it; so involuntary unemployment doesn’t exist, and laissez-faire does.

In effect, then, for most contemporary economists both voluntary and involuntary unemployment amount to full employment. Distinguishing among the three terms would saddle scholars with two extra variables that could enormously complicate their equations. The obvious course is to simplify by using one term for three. It is with this simplification that the Assumed Employment Virus enters today’s models.

ONCE THE VIRUS is in the models, two things happen. First, since full employment is now an unequivocal term in an equation, the equation can be solved for it. Full employment is no longer a mere possibility or desideratum or dream but an eventuality, if not a determinate actuality – just as in General Equilibrium Analysis the “proof” of the possibility of an equilibrium quickly entails proof that an equilibrium exists, and that it is optimal. Second, since full employment is at last one of the prime objectives of any modern economic policy, any model containing the virus has apparently proved the achievability of the objective, and it can therefore be assumed. Whatever still remains for the economy to do can be done with comparative ease. In other words, take it easy: laissez-faire.

As might be expected, the Assumed Employment Virus, having successfully infected models of the economy as a whole, has had equal success in confusing more restricted models. Thus the proofs of Keynes and Michal Kalecki that saving equals investment have been used, and are still used, to justify the constant cries for decreased consumption and increased saving. (The proofs merely mean that whatever is invested has been saved; they do not mean that whatever is saved is invested.)

More to our present point, in the absence of truly full employment, too much saving can actually be, as Keynes was at pains to emphasize, a bar to investment as well as to consumption. Because what is saved cannot be consumed, saving reduces demand; and when demand is reduced, prudent entrepreneurs are not emboldened to invest in new production to satisfy it. Consequently, the recurrent schemes to encourage saving are generally either unproductive or counterproductive. In the 1993-94 debates over NAFTA and GATT,   Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage was similarly cited regularly without acknowledgment or recognition of its dependence on the assumption of full employment.

It is obvious enough that a nation is neither enriched nor strengthened if substantial numbers of its citizens lose their jobs and are kept unemployed while the nation imports some product these citizens once made or could now make. This manifest truth is, however, rendered irrelevant by the Assumed Employment Virus.

Those who have been downsized into joblessness (including the economists we mentioned at the start) are likewise victims of the Virus. The standard productivity index is derived by dividing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for a period by the number of hours worked during that period. The index is a common fraction, so it will naturally rise if the denominator (“hours worked”) is reduced; hence the rush to downsize everything from the Federal government to the local supermarket.

“Productivity” may thereby be improved, but production (which is not an index number but actual goods and services produced for actual people to use and enjoy) falters. The victims of downsizing, being now unemployed, necessarily reduce their consumption, that is, the demands they make upon the economy. Entrepreneurs, faced by this reduction in demand, reduce production, which of course leads to a reduction of the GDP.

It would be different if full employment were the actuality rather than a deluded assumption caused by a “virus” in economists’ models. As long as there are unemployed workers, though, the first mission of macroeconomic policy should be to increase “hours worked”-that is, employment. This is not to say that we need a return of the Luddites. It is to say that we need economists dedicated to devising policies that will make full employment a hard reality instead of an easy assumption.

The New Leader

By George P. Brockway, originally published October 9, 1995

1995-10-9 Japan Does It Again TitleTHE TEXT for today’s lesson comes from the second act of The Mikado, where Ko-Ko, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum sing in unison, “Here’s a pretty how-de-doc!”

For Japan has done it again. Last year

I reported in “Unemployment Japanese Style” (NL, May 9-23, 1994) how Japan has given the lie to the most awesome and awesomely barbarous-notion of American economics. I mean the theory of the “natural rate of unemployment,” or, in proper academic gobbledygook, the “non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment,” or, in a fashionable acronym, NAIRU.

As you will remember, NAIRU says that if unemployment falls below a certain level, inflation will accelerate without limit until the central bank (a.k.a. the Federal Reserve Board) raises the interest rate high enough to cause a recession. In the United States, the “desired” rate of unemployment is said to be about 6 per cent. At present it is hovering around 5.5 per cent, and the inflation rate is about 3 per cent. We maintain it all with a 9 per cent prime, and are expected to make a soft landing (from where to where no one says).

The Japanese, however, have already landed. Their unemployment rate has not been higher than 3 per cent for decades, and their inflation rate is lower than ours. In short, they have made the natural rate of unemployment and its advocates look foolish.

And now they have done the same thing to the second most hallowed doctrine of contemporary American economics productivity theory. The dogma of productivity is among the most widely invoked in economics, especially when practical policies are at issue. It is dominant at all levels, from microeconomic downsizing to macroeconomic competitiveness in the new global economy. It is central in labor and environmental disputes. Along with NAIRU, it guides the deliberations of the Federal Reserve Board. It is brought to bear on matters not strictly economic, from education to highway design.

How have the Japanese made this sublime theory (and its practitioners) look foolish? Well, it tums out that the assembly plants in the United States of two major Japanese automobile manufacturers, Nissan and Toyota, have higher productivity ratings than those of any American manufacturer. So what’s new? What’s new is that both Japanese plants lost money last year, while American automobile manufacturers were rolling in it.

There are, to be sure, plenty of reasons for the poor profit showing of the Japanese plants. First is the “strong” yen, which renders anything made of Japanese parts expensive in comparison with the same things produced in countries with “weak” currencies. Second is the Japanese determination to use only their own parts, no matter where they are assembled (a casus belli in the trade dust-up last June). Third is the evident Japanese decision to accept the losses for the sake of maintaining or improving their share of the American market. Fourth could be a Japanese preference for losses rather than paying corporate taxes in the United States (since Nissan as a whole lost ¥166.1 billion or $1.86 billion-last year, this is not a probable motive). Fifth is the Japanese policy of slighting their home market in favor of their export market, with the result that a sluggish world economy has been translated, these past three or four years, into a stagnant or recessive Japanese economy.

All these reasons for poor profits would be even more forceful if Japanese plants were less efficient and less “productive.” And American automobile manufacturers would very likely increase their profits by becoming more efficient. The point, though, is this: You can be “unproductive” yet profitable and stay in business. But you can’t stay in business forever, no matter how productive you are, if you don’t make ends meet. (Of course, the American assembly plants of Nissan and Toyota are scarcely noticeable elements of their businesses; these factories could probably be run at a loss indefinitely without much hurting long-term corporate profits.)

In a free economy, productivity may sound nice (at least if you haven’t been downsized), but profitability is essential. This being the case, one must wonder why the economics profession is enthralled by the idea of productivity. You can produce a table and chairs, knives and forks, plants and food, and sustain yourself, but productivity for its own sake is, as Midas found gold to be, not good to eat. Productivity is a less important concept than profit. It is also a slipshod, if not flatly fallacious, idea[i].

I have, over the years, worked up examples of the absurd consequences of applying standard productivity theory to micro-economic and macroeconomic problems, and (you may not believe this) I’m tired of repeating myself. If you missed those lessons, I would advise you to rush to order the third edition of The End of Economic Man, due at your bookseller’s in January.

In the meantime, I will repeat a baseball example, since that sport may again be the national pastime. Once upon a time, the Washington Senators got a rookie centerfielder by the name of Joe Hardy. On Hardy’s first time at bat in the majors (as I heard the story), he hit a grand slam home run. When he was due up next, there were only two men on base; so the manager[1], who had majored in economics, yanked him for a pinch hitter. Otherwise Hardy’s productivity (the number of runs he knocked in per at bat) would have had to go down-unless he drew a base on balls or got hit by a pitch, and neither could be counted on. I forget the manager’s name; I think M.I.T. snapped him up to coach their entry in the Neoclassical Synthesis League.

I know our baseball analogy reeks of metaphysics. So does productivity theory, and I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to think about it.

Productivity is defined as output divided by input. The output part presents no particular difficulty. It can be as definite as the 48,000 pins produced in a day by the “small manufactory” Adam Smith tells us about; but usually it is as diffuse as the Gross Domestic Product, and so has to be reduced to dollars, as the GDP is.

You might think that the input part would also be reduced to dollars, for it, too, is pretty diffuse, including at least land, labor and capital. The fact of the matter, however, is that economists tend to be embarrassed by money. Victorians thought it vulgar to talk about it. Today’s economists, like medieval scholastics and contemporary analytic philosophers, think money is merely nominal-unreal. Mathematical economists who fancy general equilibrium theory can’t find a place for money in their model. Unreal.

The obvious way to avoid using money in the denominator of the productivity fraction is to select the largest factor of input and make it a surrogate for the whole. Very well. Labor is today the single largest factor in the U.S., year after year amounting to close to 60 per cent of total costs. You will have noticed that total costs have to be stated in terms of money, and therefore that 60 per cent of the total also has to be stated in terms of money. (We’re going to have to let that pass, or this column will become a book.)

ANYWAY, the Productivity Index prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Department of Labor divides the Gross Domestic Product of a period by the number of hours worked by all persons “engaged” in the period, including the hours of proprietors and unpaid family members. “Hours worked,” especially by unpaid workers, certainly is not money, and the category presents other problems. Most important, the hours are not homogeneous. Lee Iacocca’s hours, or some of them, undoubtedly yield a greater output than do a machinist’s, and a machinist’s hours yield a greater output than do a floor sweeper’s; but they’re all the same to the Department of Labor. Indeed, when you stop to think of it you realize that land and capital also work hours, probably more hours than labor, because they never sleep, and therefore might be thought more suitable than labor as surrogates for all inputs.

There is also an Employment Cost Index, which divides the total annual compensation of all employees of private business, from handyman to CEO, by the annual total of hours worked for pay. This gives us a figure that I frankly can see only cynical use for. Since it combines rapidly growing executive salaries with slowly falling common laborer wages, it has almost doubled from 64.8 in 1980 to 123.5 in 1994, and so can be used by readers of the Wall Street Journal to prove to their seat mates on the commuting train that labor never had it so good.

The conclusions drawn from the Productivity Index are similarly not remarkably reliable or even useful. During our autumn of discontent, mainstream economists recommended single-minded devotion to productivity to prepare us for the explosive competitiveness of the brave new global village. We learned that to become more productive, we must reduce “hours worked,” and to reduce “hours worked,” we must downsize.

Well, you don’t need a productivity index to know that you could make more money if you could turn out the same quantity of commodities with fewer employees. I could do that one with my eyes closed. With my eyes open, I can see that you make more money by producing the same output while borrowing less and paying lower interest on the sum borrowed, or paying lower taxes, or reducing advertising, or having fewer three-martini lunches, or organizing your business more rationally.

What I see with my eyes open as well are a lot of situations where input and output are stated in terms of money. That is not as strange as modern economists seem to think. When we divide total output in dollars by total input in dollars, our answer is the rate of profit, which is not an esoteric new idea at all. Business managers seeking to compare their firm’s current operations with those of their competitors, and with their own in other years, have used such ratios for generations. It’s nothing to them how many hours are required to make their product; what they’re after is the minimum cost.

For years the Japanese have demonstrated that you don’t have to have unnaturally high unemployment to maintain low inflation. Now Nissan and Toyota offer empirical proof that although yours may be the most “productive” outfit in the village, it may profit you nothing. Thus the Japanese have cooled off the two hottest tickets of modern American economics.

What will they think of next?

The New Leader

[1] Benny Van Buren

[i] Shades of Clayton Christensen and, among other things “When Giants Fail”

By George P. Brockway, originally published May 9, 1994

1994-5-9 Unemployment Japanese Style Title

1994-5-9 Unemployment Japanese Style Reuters

I REPRODUCE above in its entirety a news article that appeared on page D4 of the Business Day section of the New York Times for Friday, April 29, 1994. Don’t feel badly if you can’t recall seeing the story in tile paper. It was easy to miss. It ran in the gutter at the very foot of the page and was surrounded at its top and left by an article from a stringer headlined “Denver Airport Date Firm” (on Sunday the date turned out for the nth time not to be firm). If you were the editor of what you proudly and properly referred to as a newspaper of record, and you had a story you wanted to kill yet had to print in order to complete the record, you would handle it in just this way.

I leave to others the task of speculating why the Japanese unemployment story was in fact buried; why, given its explosively dramatic contrast with American and European unemployment records, it was not run as the lead on the first page of the Business Day section, if not on the front page of the entire paper; why the bare numbers were not accompanied by a backgrounder explaining how the Japanese manage such a low unemployment rate even in the midst of a recession; why nothing about the story has appeared among the concerns of the editorial page or the Op- Ed page; why the Times economics columnists have found nothing to remark on in a report that renders suspect the barbaric but fashionable theory of a natural rate of  unemployment, a smattering of whose arcane details they dazzle us with now and then.

Although I will not speculate, I am interested in that last point. For as I have said often enough, I follow Keynes (and indeed everyone at all capable of empathy with a fellow human being) in holding that an outstanding fault of the economic society in which we live is its failure to provide full employment. The theory of a natural rate of unemployment, subscribed to by almost every conventional economist in the United States, argues that this outstanding fault cannot be corrected without igniting an inflation that would destroy the economy.

The news from Tokyo tells us that the current unemployment rate in Japan, while the highest in six years, is nevertheless lower than the lowest unemployment rate the United States has posted since World War II. I do not have at hand Japanese figures earlier than 1967, but after that date Japan’s unemployment has never been higher than 2.9 per cent and U.S. unemployment has never been lower than 3.4 per cent. The American low was registered during the Vietnam War. Our present rate (achieved during a sluggish peacetime recovery that has scared the Federal Reserve Board silly with nightmares of future inflation) is almost three times the present Japanese rate (achieved during a persistent recession).

These facts strongly suggest that the so-called natural rate need not be accepted as immutable. What the Japanese have done is surely within our capabilities; and given the freedom, not to say volatility, of American life, a 2.6 percent rate would be as near full employment as never was.

The natural rate theory has from the beginning allowed that the rate is not really natural but depends on “market characteristics” that are, as Milton Friedman has said, “man-made and policy-made.” What man and policy make they presumably can unmake. The chief market characteristic complained of by natural rate theorists is a minimum wage law. Emboldened by my recent adventure in investigative reporting (see “Ending Welfare As We Know It,” NL, March 14-28), I phoned six Japanese agencies (four of them official) and one American labor union to find out whether Japan has a minimum wage law. No one knew offhand, but the consulate called me back a couple of hours later to report that indeed Japan has such a law. It is a national law, and it specifies minimum wages for different trades and different localities. I doubt that natural rate theorists, who are firm believers in market discipline, would think it an improvement on the American law.

Let us therefore consider the reaction of conventional theory to a 2.6 per cent unemployment rate. Without doubt the prescription would be for a high-very high-interest rate to contain inflation. Has that been prescribed in Japan? Indeed it has not, nor has such a regimen been followed. Rather the contrary, the interest earned by a 1O-year government bond in Japan is now 4 per cent; with us, the corresponding rate is, as I write, 7.10 per cent and will go higher before you read this, if the present majority of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee has its way.

Well, then, since Japan has comparatively low unemployment and comparatively low interest, it must, according to conventional theory, have comparatively high inflation. But Japan’s price index changed 0.0 per cent in April and, at least from 1967, has never climbed as fast as ours.

IT IS OF COURSE possible that other elements contribute to the differences between Japan and the United States. I can name three that may: import policy, productivity and saving.

We all know about Japanese import policy. It is difficult, devious, protectionist, and successful. Twelve years ago I wrote the first of several columns arguing for a protectionist policy for the United States (“America’s Setting Sun,” NL, June 14, 1982). I don’t propose to repeat myself now, except to remark that Japanese protectionism has obviously not prevented the success of Japanese policies directed toward low unemployment, and may well have been a factor in their success.

Productivity is another question I have addressed several times (first in “Productivity: The New Shell Game,” NL, February 8, 1982). In the present context all that need be said is that American productivity is now, and as far as I have been able to discover has always been, greater than Japanese. In fact, among the leading industrial nations, only British productivity has generally been outranked by the Japanese.

On the other hand, Japan’s GNP has, until the last couple of years, grown faster than ours.  Conventional economic theory, though, is possessed of the altogether unintelligible notion that productivity is more desirable than production. It may work out that way in a mathematical model, but it certainly doesn’t on the dinner table[1].

I have also written about saving and shall do so again, but the problem with respect to Japan is special. In the first place, a 1990 study by Fred Block in the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics demonstrated that the figures usually published overstate Japanese saving and understate American. In the second place, as Block showed, an extraordinary amount of Japanese saving, however defined, goes into speculation rather than production. The real estate (land and improvements) of Japan, a nation whose area is no greater than that of Montana, is, at today’s prices, more valuable than the real estate of our 48 contiguous states (a not inconsiderable amount of which is owned by Japanese). The Japanese stock exchange is notoriously volatile, with daily spikes (or spike holes) of 5 per cent or more not uncommon. Keynes thought Americans were addicted to gambling, but the Japanese seem to have it worse.

1994-5-9 Unemployment Japanese Style Unemployment Office

All of their speculation absorbs enormous amounts of money, but it does nothing for the economy. The money is saved in the sense that although it was earned in the producing economy, it is withheld from use in the producing economy. The withholding is achieved by underpaying large classes of workers, especially women, and by underfunding social services. Because of its hierarchical distribution of wealth and its systematic maldistribution of income, Japan cannot consume all it produces and must sell overseas; thus when foreign markets falter, Japan suffers recession.

In short, neither Japanese import policy, nor Japanese productivity, nor Japanese saving can account for Japan’s low unemployment coupled with low inflation. So is there nothing we can learn from the Japanese record? There are, I think, a couple of things. In the circumstances, the actual virtues (as opposed to the theoretical vices) of some sort of protectionism are very hard to deny, as are the virtues of a steadily low interest rate.

Regarding the latter point, we are told that we cannot afford a low rate because it would stimulate a flight of capital to the Bahamas or the Caymans or perhaps some more exotic land farther overseas. I don’t know about that. Even in the early ’80s, when the prime rate here hit 21.5 per cent, and the Japanese rate was as low as it is now, only a small proportion of the yen flew here. Why did most of it stay home? For the good and simple reason (as Tom Swift used to say) that with a low interest rate Japanese industry could be happily profitable, while the “strong” American dollar caused by high American interest made it easy to penetrate our unprotected market.

A high interest rate (and our recent supposedly low rate was exceedingly high by Japanese standards, as well as by our own pre-1960 standards) is a market characteristic that makes for a high “natural” rate of unemployment. A low rate, contrariwise. The news was barely fit to print. Still, we’d be wise to pay attention to it.

The New Leader

[1] Ed.:  I can’t help but wonder what the author would have thought of Clayton Christensen’s concerns with corporate focus on margins instead of profits as in the Innovator’s Dilemma, and his more recent thoughts on The Capitalist’s Dilemma.

By George P. Brockway, originally published May 19, 1993

1993-5-19 Why Productivity Will Unto Clintonomics title

THE FIRST COLUMN in this series, almost 12 years ago, was titled “Why Speculation Will Undo Reaganomics” (NL, September 7, 1981). Well, I was wrong. I was right enough in my analysis – that speculation would enrich the rich and impoverish the poor and bring on what we now call a credit crunch – but I naively could not imagine anyone being pleased with such an outcome. By last November, of course, a considerable majority of the voters did become displeased, if not with the enrichment of the rich and the impoverishment of the poor, at least with the stagnation that followed from the polarization of the economy.

I now feel possessed of another prophecy. And I hope I’m wrong again.

When I say productivity will undo Clintonomics, I mean just that. I don’t mean lack of productivity. I mean what the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the Economist are always writing about, what Nobel laureates in economics from MIT are always talking about, what Labor Secretary Robert Reich is now planning to try to increase. I mean that to the extent that Clintonomics is successful in improving our productivity, it will fail to improve our standard of living.

If our aim is what all these worthies say it should be, we can achieve it by decreasing production, profits, employment and wages. In fact, this is what General Motors and IBM and other giants of our economy are doing today. The fashionable word for their activity is downsizing, and the purpose is to step up productivity. Given a modicum of managerial skill and luck, half of the downsized corporations may actually improve their rating on the productivity scale. But their production and profits and employment and wages will mostly be lower. And the national product and profits and employment and labor income will certainly be lower.

Productivity is not a new idea. It was an old idea when President Reagan, in his first year in office, created a 33-member National Productivity Advisory Committee headed by former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon. You never heard of that committee? Who ever did? A year or so after its appointment I spent some time trying to find out what it had accomplished. Although I wrote as CEO of an American corporation, Simon did not answer my inquiries, nor did the White House. Finally, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was able to dig up for me three or four slim pamphlets published by a second productivity committee that had been created some months after the initial one. I still have the pamphlets somewhere in this mess I call my study. As I recall them, they were paeans to efficiency and might well have been written by Frederick Winslow Taylor a hundred years earlier.

When economists started playing with productivity they changed it radically. They defined it clearly enough as output per unit of input. In keeping with their passion for mathematics, though, they devised an equation to determine it and an index to rank performance. Since labor is by far the largest factor of input, they thought to simplify the equation by letting labor stand for all inputs. This had the further attraction of allowing them to quantify input in “real” rather than dollars-and-cents terms, as they would have had to do in order to add the input of labor to the inputs of land, capital, technology, and whatever other factors one might name. Mathematical economists tend to believe that money is not real and don’t like to talk about it in public, but their simplification, as I’ve shown in greater detail elsewhere (see The End of Economic Man, Revised–Adv.), causes a serious distortion.

The productivity equation relates two quantities. It is a ratio, an ordinary fraction. In the United States it is computed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Department of Labor, which divides the gross domestic product of a period by the number of hours worked in the period. “Hours worked” includes those of proprietors, unpaid family members and others “engaged” in any business.

Like all simple fractions, this one can be increased in the two ways we learned in grade school: by increasing the numerator (2/3 is greater than 1/3), or by decreasing the denominator (1/2 is also greater than 1/3)[1]. Given this property of fractions, a moment’s reflection will satisfy you that the productivity index is constitutionally incapable of providing an unequivocal answer to any question you may reasonably want to ask. It tells nothing of the size or nature of the domestic product, and nothing of the size, composition or compensation of the labor force.

The index goes up when production fails, provided “hours worked” falls faster; that is what the downsizing movement aims for. The other name for this result is recession, or depression. On the other hand, the index declines when production rises, provided “hours worked” rises faster. The other name for this result is nonsense. The economy is not less prosperous, nor is the nation weaker, because more people are working. (Otherwise, why are we so eager to get welfare mothers to work?)

The foregoing is obvious, and the mathematics is indefeasible. How is it, then, that so many intelligent, experienced, well-intentioned men and women –practically the entire membership of the American Economic Association, not to mention the with-it managements of our corporations great and small – are bemused by the productivity delusion? Psychology aside, I can make a stab at explanation.

Let’s begin with a quotation from a back issue of the Times: “A worker who produces 100 widgets an hour is clearly more productive than a worker who produces only 50 widgets an hour.” That is certainly true. And generalizing the observation, a nation of 100-widget-an-hour workers should be twice as prosperous as a nation of equal size composed of 50-widget-an-hour workers. True again – with one proviso, namely that both nations have full employment[2]. Should the first nation have only a third of its workers employed, while the second has full employment, the second will produce 50 per cent more widgets than the first and therefore will be more prosperous.

The assumption of full employment is one that economists are so comfortable with that they make it routinely, without thinking about it. Indeed, classical economics was based on this assumption, and so is neoclassical, or the economics currently practiced by most of the profession.

The beauty of full employment is that if you have it, almost anything you try will work. David Ricardo thought that England should stop making wine and concentrate on wool cloth, that Portugal should do the opposite, and that the two countries should exchange surpluses. The English vintners would become weavers, and so on. Given some rather special assumptions, this was a dandy idea in 1817 (and today it underlies the North American Free Trade Agreement). A better idea, because the British Isles were plagued by roving bands of homeless unemployed, would have been to employ the unemployed as vintners (or brewers or barley-water bottlers) and let the Portuguese keep their port, along with the wool they were perfectly capable of weaving.

If you have full employment, you can (and should) invest almost without limit to upgrade your product and upgrade the workers and capital plant that produce it. If you have millions of men and women who are unemployed or underemployed, you need to increase the number of hours worked. It doesn’t make much sense for the nation to train these people for jobs in industries that don’t exist, or that we can only imagine, to satisfy the presumed demands of a hypothetical global economy.

The new global economy is a hot ticket today. In the sense that we have one, however, there has almost always been one. Archaeologists now claim that the fabled Silk Route is two or three millennia older than Marco Polo thought. But the economic impact of the route was slight in prehistoric times, and at present the economic impact on us of Bombay and Cairo and Mexico City does not extend much beyond our corporations exploiting their labor in order to undercut our wage rates.

Unemployment is our problem. Adding up those who are officially called unemployed, those too discouraged to look for work, those too turned-off to think of working, and those able to find only occasional part-time work, recent testimony before a Congressional committee reached the appalling total of 17.3 million men and women. If we followed Mexican practice and counted as employed everyone who as much as cadged a tip for opening a car door last week, our unemployment total would be as low as the 2 per cent Mexico reports. Or if we followed mainstream economic practice and did not count at all the “naturally” unemployed, we could squinch our eyes shut and pretend that the problem didn’t exist (see “Are You Naturally Unemployed?” NL, August 10-24, 1992).

It exists, nevertheless. It really and truly exists, and as long as our best brains are trying desperately to reduce “hours worked,” it will not go away. Clintonomics may cauterize a few hundred malignant polyps at the top of our income distribution, and that will be all to the good. It may find suitable work for a few thousand middle managers rendered redundant by corporate or governmental downsizing, and that will be to the good. But unemployment will not be substantially reduced (except by the withdrawal of people from the official labor force), aggregate consumption will not be substantially increased, and whatever brave new hi-tech industries are created will stagnate for lack of consumers, here or abroad, able to buy their products.

These dismal outcomes will no doubt be exacerbated by the eagerness of Congress, whipped to a frenzy by Citizen Ross Perot, to cut government expenditures, and by the complementary unwillingness to fund the President’s already inadequate stimulus program. But all that aside, a mad drive for “productivity” in the face of long-lasting unemployment is fully sufficient to undo Clintonomics.

I hope I’m wrong, for I joined in the grateful cheering during the State of the Union address.

The New Leader

[1] Ed: Reminds me of seeing a colleague trying to explain some numerical analysis in a peer review session, a Friday Afternoon Seminar, and failing. Finally our founder stood up and said, “Well, that’s the trouble with ratios… They have a numerator and a denominator.”  He then walked off…

[2] Ed: Loyal readers will recall that the author does not believe in NAIRU, the natural rate of unemployment.

Originally published May 18, 1984

SEVERAL Sundays ago the New York Times business section had one of its recurring roundups of professional opinion on productivity. This is a live issue because publicists and politicians keep it alive. President Reagan and his retiring, but not bashful, chief economic adviser, Martin Feldstein, never tire of talking about it. The Atari Democrats also fancy the issue, though they began keeping their heads down once their advisee, Gary Hart, became a serious candidate for the party’s Presidential nomination. At least two White House commissions are supposed to have been working on the question for the past two or three years (no one knows the results, if any). Innumerable editorials have been written on it, and not a few books.

Yet the whole debate is an elaborate scam, because what is presented as a value-free examination by sober social scientists is actually a struggle over the distribution of the national income. Some (maybe most) of those perpetrating the scam may know not what they do. It is a scam, nevertheless.

As pseudo-science, the argument goes like this: Of the various factors of production, labor is the largest. Employees’ compensation-wages, salaries, bonuses, fringe benefits-comes to about two-thirds of the Gross National Product. That being so, it would seem plausible to take this largest factor as an index of the efficiency of the whole.

As the Times puts it, “A worker who produces 100 widgets an hour, for example, is clearly more productive than a worker who produces only 50 widgets an hour. ” There are many sleepers in the seemingly innocent example and the Times isaware of some of them: “the machines that are used, the worker’s education or skill, advances in technology, the working environment.” The worker can be praised or blamed for few of the items in this little list; most are someone else’s doing. That fact is not noticed by the judgmental types who complain that people don’t work as hard as they used to.

But the trouble with the Productivity Index starts with the GNP itself (see “Sinking by the Numbers,”NL, May2, 1983). The GNP has nothing to do with widgets, or with shoes or ships or sealing wax. The reason for this is obvious enough: You can’t add shoes and ships and sealing wax and widgets, any more than you can add apples and pears. All you can add is the prices of the widgets and shoes and so on, and you get a result in dollars that depends as much on the prices of widgets and shoes as on the numbers of widgets and shoes.

This is true for the economy as a whole, and it is true for the firms that make it up. Even the rare company that makes widgets alone judges its productivity in numbers of dollars rather than numbers of widgets. If it manufactures 100 widgets and can sell only 50, the remaining 50 are not products but waste. Companies that deal in a variety of products have no choice except to measure their total output in dollars.

Nor is this procedure necessary only in market economies. In the purest communism of our time, the brief reign of the Gang of Four in China, several streets in Shanghai were lined with thousands of boilers quietly rusting under the plane trees. Somebody had built them and no doubt got a commendation for exceeding his quota, but there was no use for them. They were waste, not products, and (if they’re not still there) they had eventually to be broken up for scrap.

The next difficulty with the GNP is as I argued last year – what it includes and what it excludes. The Times article provides a good example of the mischief that results. “Increased regulation,” says the Times, “aimed at such things as clean air and water and increased safety in the workplace . . . absorbed management time and business resources in the ’70s. Now that the pace of new regulation has slowed, if not reversed, business will be freer to concentrate its money and effort on other things, such as productivity.

“You’ve heard so much of this kind of talk that you may not be immediately struck by how fatuous it is. If you will read the passage again, you will notice the unstated (and unstatable) assumption that clean air and water and increased safety are worthless in comparison with more widgets or cheaper widgets or anything at all (a widget being the ultimate nondescript object). Well, there may be some things more important than clean air, but a widget isn’t one of them. In a rational world, what you produce is a more important question than productivity.

Productivity is a ratio (see Productivity: The New Shell Game,” NL, February 8, 1982). So far we have dealt only with the numerator. The denominator is suspect in its own way. The figure usually used is the total hours worked by everyone in producing the GNP. This is a moldy fudge. Since you can’t think how to quantify (except in dollars, of which more later) the relative contributions of the designer of the widget, the operator of the machine that stamps it out, and the fellow who sweeps up the scraps, you sweep the problem out with the scraps and conclude that Gertrude Stein would have been right if she had said, “Hour is an hour is an hour.” Or as Karl Marx did put it, “We 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.”

On this basis, you’d have to say that if a skilled journeyman carpenter could increase his output 50 per cent by taking on an unskilled apprentice, the result would be a 25 per cent decrease in his productivity. In addition, you’d have to say that the apprentice’s productivity was equal to the journeyman’s. Worse still, you’d have to say – and people do –  that it’s better for national productivity to have millions of men and women unemployed than for them to be working and producing less than their co-workers. The Times, for instance, says: “The entry of 20 million new and inexperienced workers into the labor force during the 1970s acted as a drag on productivity.”

Any theory that makes you say things like that is silly, and any figures that lead to such conclusions are mischievous. Productivity, at least as everyone measures it, is a grievously misleading notion. If you take it seriously, you believe that clean air and water and increased safety are bad and should be opposed. You believe, too, that employing young people and women and blacks and others without experience is bad, and that therefore an unemployment rate of 8 per cent is not merely acceptable but desirable.

IT MAY OCCUR to you to wonder why the denominator of the productivity ratio is “hours worked.” Why not “workers’ compensation?” Then at least you wouldn’t have silly results like our journeyman-apprentice example or the all-too-real unemployment problem. Then you wouldn’t have to pretend, as the Times does, that management has been wasting its valuable time on the environment.

You would, however, be in danger of calling attention to one of the hidden aspects of the scam – that is, the place of management, especially top management, in the whole picture. For the chief executive officer of a company is a wage slave just like the operator of the widget machine. As long as you focus on hours worked, you meld his allegedly productive hours with the less valuable hours of the operator, thereby improving the index and demonstrating your scientific willingness to put the faltering American workingman in as favorable a light as possible.

You also diminish the risk of having someone point out that CEOs are often paid five or six thousand times as much as widget machine operators (I’ll say more about this in another column). Or of someone separating management productivity from working-stiff productivity and introducing a brand new ball game: It would no longer seem that the Japanese are catching up with us because their production workers are workaholics, while ours are goof-offs; the catching up, if any, would appear to be due to the fact that they have fewer managers, who have fewer Lear jets, stretch limousines, three-martini lunches, tax shelters, and golden parachutes.

The scam has yet another aspect. Labor may be the largest factor of production, but looking back on the others the Times mentioned (“the machines that are used, the worker’s education and skill, advances in technology, the working environment”), you will note that the first and last of these are supplied by capital, the second is largely the responsibility of the state, and the third is a joint activity of capital and the state. A capital productivity index would be at least as reasonable, therefore, as a labor productivity index. The numbers would not be markedly different, but they’d have a vastly different meaning.

You can carry this a step further. For although productive capital is not money, it is bought with money, and money has a cost, namely interest. The prime rate has gone from 1.5 per cent (really and truly) in 1947 to 12.5 per cent today, having had flings as high as 21.5 per cent along the way. In other words, with every dollar American industry now pays (actually, or as opportunity cost) for interest, it is able to buy only one eighth as much of capital goods as it could have at the end of World War II (and this is without counting inflation).

There is the real drag on the American economy, and on the world economy. As I said at the beginning, 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 about, and the Atari Democrats have been gulled into going along with it.

            The New Leader

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