As known by RealityChek readers, I’m always hesitant to make too much of official U.S. productivity statistics because many economists believe that these various measures of efficiency are unusually hard to measure. (Google “productivity,” “data,” “measurement,” and “problems” and you’ll see what I mean.)
Moreover, I’ve been especially hesitant during the CCP Virus era, because the pandemic and related lockdowns and behavioral changes have been so unprecedented, and it’s still far from clear how lasting the effects will be.
Having said that, these data surely aren’t completely meaningless either, and a major finding of theirs has been so dramatic that it’s tough to dismiss: Both the relatively narrow measure of labor productivity, or the broader measure of total factor productivity show a big slowdown in productivity growth in recent decades.
For total factor productivity, here are the figures that compare the performance of non-farm businesses in percentage terms during the last three economic recoveries (i.e., using the best apples-to-apples data) before the CCP Virus-era bounceback that began in the third quarter of 2020:
1990s expansion (1991-2000): +10.34 percent
bubble decade expansion (02-07): +6.91 percent
post-Great Recession expansion (10-19): +4.88 percent
The main evidence for the slowdown is the fact that even though the latest expansion was the same length as that of the 1990s, its cumulative total factor productivity growth was less than half as strong.
In this context, it’s noteworthy today’s Labor Department release on total factor productivity (which, unlike labor productivity, tries to show business’ success in using a wide range of inputs – not just workers – to improve efficiency) has something for both optimists and pessimists.
Glass-half-full types will observe that, in 2021, total factor productivity grew by 3.17 percent – a record in a statistical series going back to 1987. The previous fastest annual pace was 1992’s 2.88 percent.
The glass-half-empty types, though, can argue that even this big advance won’t be enough to end the long-running slowdown. In the first place, the excellent 2020-21 impovement followed a 1.97 percent 2019-20 decrease that was the worst performance of all time. And in that vein, because solid total factor productivity increases are typical of early stages of an economic recovery, the 2021 year-on-year jump may only be a post-CCP Virus reversion to a dreary long-term mean.
The optimists can counter by claiming that pandemic-driven trends like severe labor shortages, consequently rising wages, and the advent of a work-at-home era in both the public and private sectors will push employers to invest more in labor-saving and communications technology in particular. The result will be a turning point in the recent crummy U.S. productivity story.
The only certainty I can see is that the virus is becoming endemic and that its economic growth-depressing effects will fade steadily (at least until the next pandemic). Other than that, I’ll simply say that the force of inertia alone indicates to me that the burden of proof for a durable productivity upswing – and for a needed U.S. transition from prosperity based on government stimulus to well-being with sturdier foundations – still lies with the optimists.