Everyone who thinks they think seriously about economics touts the importance of productivity – and rightly so, since boosting this critical measure of efficiency is vital to boosting living standards over any meaningful period of time. But we’ve just gotten a sign that virtually no one walks the productivity walk. If they did, would the release of the latest Labor Department multi-factor productivity data last week have been so thoroughly ignored?
The department’s labor productivity statistics are pretty closely followed – no doubt because they come out quarterly and are therefore pretty up to date. The multi-factor productivity numbers only come out annually, so there’s a longer time lag. And the figures for specific parts of the economy, like manufacturing, are a full year behind that.
All the same, the multi-factor productivity statistics are much more important than their labor productivity counterparts for two main reasons. First, they take into account all the major inputs of production, like capital and technology and returns to scale – not just labor. Second, they’re not distorted by business offshoring activity the way the labor productivity data are.
And because the multi-factor statistics have been neglected, so have two important messages sent by the new figures: Manufacturing leads the nation in productivity growth by a long shot, and if these data are any indication (which they are), American industry is far from in renaissance mode.
The gap between manufacturing multi-factor productivity and total private sector productivity once again highlights the outsized importance of manufacturing to American economic performance and prosperity, and once again justifies treating its health as a high public policy priority. According to the new Labor Department data, from 1987 (when the statistics began to be kept) to 2012, multi-factor productivity in manufacturing rose by 34.81 percent. The same figure for the entire private sector? Just 28.55 percent – and since this includes manufacturing, the improvement for non-manufacturing industries was even smaller.
We won’t get the manufacturing data for 2013 until next year but the private sector gain – an historically unimpressive 0.7 percent – suggests that this picture won’t change much when they are released.
But those manufacturing renaissance claims are undercut big-time by these same multi-factor productivity figures. The Labor Department breaks down its performance by different time periods since 1987, and these data show that the growth of manufacturing’s multi-factor productivity has slowed significantly since the 1990s – and is now just about the rate it achieved in the decidedly non-renaissance-y late 1980s.
The numbers: From 1987 to 1990, multi-factor productivity grew by just 0.76 percent total – lagging the rest of the private sector considerably. From 1990 to 1995, this pace sped up to 5.75 percent, and the acceleration continued over the next five years, when manufacturing multi-factor productivity jumped to 9.17 percent. But from 2011 to 2012, manufacturing’s efficiency increased by only 0.62 percent according to this measure – again, more slowly than the 1.43 percent rise for total private sector multi-factor productivity.
Yes, the 1990s totals were no doubt inflated by that decade’s tech bubble – which means that much of the period’s manufacturing output was completely unjustified by economic fundamentals. But manufacturing’s multi-factor productivity was also growing much faster during the pre-bubble early 1990s – which included a short recession.
The big takeaways: If they really want to strengthen the U.S. economy, America’s leaders, businesses, and chattering classes need to work more effectively to strengthen domestic manufacturing – to make sure it enjoys a real renaissance, not the imaginary version proclaimed by the President and so many other cheerleaders.