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The Labor Department reported earlier this week that America’s labor productivity flat-lined at an annual rate between the last quarter of last year and the first quarter of this year. And relatively speaking, that was good news. The initial study of this measure of economic efficiency – and key determinant of the nation’s living standards – estimated that business labor productivity in the non-farm business sector (the government’s main proxy for the entire economy) fell at an annualized 0.6 percent.

Labor productivity, you may recall, is the narrowest of two measures of productivity. It gauges how much in the way of stuff or services Americans produce per hour of work from each worker. So the resulting picture isn’t as complete as that provided by multi-factor productivity – which as the name suggests looks at production per man or woman hour generated by many different inputs. But the labor numbers come out on a much timelier basis (each quarter), and for all the unusual amount of uncertainty that economists admit when they analyze productivity, they’re viewed as being reasonably reliable.

One small consolation, especially if you value manufacturing highly (as you should): Industry’s labor productivity not only grew quarter-to-quarter during the first three months of 2017 (by 0.50 percent annualized). It grew faster than the original estimate of 0.40 percent.

Manufacturing’s role as the economy’s productivity leader is also crystal clear upon reviewing the longer-term trends. During the 1990s expansion (as known by RealityChek regulars, comparing similar phases of the business cycle produces the most informative data), non-farm business labor productivity increased by 23.25 percent, while manufacturing labor productivity improved by 46.18 percent.

That recovery was America’s longest on record – just under ten years. The next expansion, during the bubble decade that preceded the financial crisis, lasted only six years. Non-farm business labor productivity rose by about the same annual pace as during the 1990s – 16.03 percent. But manufacturing labor productivity grew even faster year-by-year, advancing by 41.22 percent during the entire period.

The story is as different during this recovery as it is depressing. Although it’s so far been nearly as long as the 1990s recovery (having started nine years ago), the improvement in non-farm business labor productivity has been just 8.05 percent overall. For manufacturing, it’s been much higher – 21.55 percent – but relatively speaking, it’s a big fall-off.

Incidentally, undoubtedly one big reason for manufacturing’s excellent productivity performance during that bubble decade has to do with production offshoring. As I’ve written repeatedly, the way labor productivity is calculated results in productivity gains being recorded when businesses send jobs overseas, as well as when they use other techniques for saving labor or using their employees more effectively. And because the United States helped China enter the World Trade Organization at the start of that decade, and thus assured multinational companies that they’d remain overwhelmingly free to supply the American market from Chinese factories, that bubble decade was a major manufacturing offshoring decade.

The fall in productivity growth could indicate that, as widely claimed, manufacturing offshoring has dropped off significantly. But the evidence is mixed at best. What’s much more apparent is that, if Americans want their country’s productivity performance to rebound, they’ll press their leaders to make robust growth in domestic manufacturing a much higher priority.

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