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Productivity is the measure of economic performance that’s understood just about the least, so pardon me if I’m not impressed with the fact that America’s third quarter results on this front beat forecasts. If you look at the actual labor productivity numbers just released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s hard to avoid concluding that, if the data really does reflect reality, the nation’s productivity growth remains subpar and isn’t improving nearly enough.

Although they don’t fully understand why it changes, economists believe that rising productivity is a key, and perhaps the key, to sustainably rising living standards over the long term. And I don’t have any basis for disagreeing with them. (One caveat: Labor productivity data like the third quarter figures put out this morning don’t distinguish fully between recorded gains from genuine technological or managerial efficiencies, which ultimately are positive for workers and the economy as a whole, and gains resulting from more job offshoring, which aren’t.)

But if the conventional wisdom about productivity growth is generally on track, this morning’s news sure wasn’t bullish. On a quarter-to-quarter basis, the second quarter 2014 reading was revised up, from a 2.3 percent annualized increase for nonfarm businesses to a 2.9 percent gain. But given that the harsh winter produced a 4.5 percent sequential drop in the first quarter – the worst since 1981! – a good bounce-back means little. (These figures are all annualized.)

As for the third quarter’s (preliminary) reading, that annualized growth rate eased back to 2.0 percent, which is certainly nothing special by recent standards. And the problem with recent standards is, they’ve been low. During the current recovery, labor productivity has now improved by a total of 7.21 percent. During the last recovery, which is now widely and correctly dismissed as a bubble (and which was one-year longer than this still-ongoing expansion), labor productivity rose by 17.62 percent.

The new BLS figures still show manufacturing as a national productivity leader, but industry’s performance has underwhelmed lately, too. Its second quarter productivity increase on a quarterly basis also was revised up – from 3.3 percent annualized to 3.5 percent. That’s a good deal higher than the nonfarm rate – which of course includes manufacturing – but of course it’s also more prone to distortion from job offshoring. (One other caveat – BLS cautions that the manufacturing productivity numbers and the overall nonfarm business numbers aren’t directly comparable since they’re measured in somewhat different ways.)

The preliminary third quarter sequential annualized manufacturing reading was a little lower – 3.2 percent – and continues a nice rate of improvement that began at the beginning of 2013. And industry’s productivity growth resumed accelerating on a year-on-year basis in the third quarter as well. But that’s where the good news stopped.

During the current recovery, manufacturing productivity is up by a total of’15.35 percent. During the last (somewhat longer recovery), it rose by 25.31 percent. And if you compare the first six years of the last recovery with the first six years of this one, manufacturing’s performance doesn’t look any better. Those growth rates? 20.48 percent versus 14.44 percent.

Remember – the last few years are supposed to represent an actual, nascent, or imminent manufacturing renaissance largely because before then, American industry hit the skids. Yet the new productivity figures (once again) show that domestic manufacturing was improving its efficiency faster during its figurative Dark Ages. I guess they don’t make renaissances like they used to.