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We’re In A Productivity Crisis. We Need To Get Serious About Solving It.

2021 September 12
by Greg Satell

When politicians and pundits talk about the economy, they usually do so in terms of numbers. Unemployment is too high or GDP is too low. Inflation should be at this level or at that. You get the feeling that somebody somewhere is turning knobs and flicking levers in order to get the machine humming at just the right speed.

Yet the economy is really about our well being. It is, at its core, our capacity to produce goods and services that we want and need, such as the food that sustains us, the homes that shelter us and the medicines that cure us, not to mention all of the little niceties and guilty pleasures that we love to enjoy.

Our capacity to generate these things is determined by our productive capacity. Despite all the hype about digital technology creating a “new economy,” productivity growth for the past 50 years has been  tremendously sluggish. If we are going to revive it and improve our lives we need to renew our commitment to scientific capital, human capital and  free markets.

Restoring Scientific Capital

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, delivered a report, Science, The Endless Frontier, that argued that the US government needed to invest in “scientific capital” and through basic research and scientific education. It would set in motion a number of programs that would set the stage for America’s technological dominance during the second half of the century.

Bush’s report led to the development of America’s scientific infrastructure, including agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and DARPA. Others, such as the National Labs and science programs at the Department of Agriculture, also contribute significantly to our scientific capital.

The results speak for themselves and returns on public research investment have been shown to surpass those in private industry. To take just one example, it has been estimated that the $3.8 billion invested in the Human Genome Project resulted in nearly $800 billion in economic impact and created over 300,000 jobs in just the first decade.

Unfortunately, we forgot those lessons. Government investment in research as a percentage of GDP has been declining for decades, limiting our ability to produce the kinds of breakthrough discoveries that lead to exciting new industries. What passes for innovation these days displaces workers, but does not lead to significant productivity gains.

So the first step to solving the productivity puzzle would be to renew our commitment to investing in the type of scientific knowledge that, as Bush put it, can “turn the wheels of private and public enterprise.” There was a bill before congress to do exactly that, but unfortunately it got bogged down in the Senate due to infighting.

Investing In Human Capital

Innovation, at its core, is something that people do, which is why education was every bit as important to Bush’s vision as investment was. “If ability, and not the circumstance of family fortune, is made to determine who shall receive higher education in science, then we shall be assured of constantly improving quality at every level of scientific activity,” he wrote.

Programs like the GI Bill delivered on that promise. We made what is perhaps the biggest investment ever in human capital, sending millions to college and creating a new middle class. American universities, considered far behind their European counterparts earlier in the century, especially in the sciences, came to be seen as the best in the world by far.

Today, however, things have gone horribly wrong. A recent study found that about half of all college students struggle with food insecurity, which is probably why only 60% of students at 4-year institutions and even less at community colleges ever earn a degree. The ones that do graduate are saddled with decades of debt

So the bright young people who we don’t starve we are condemning to decades of what is essentially indentured servitude. That’s no way to run an entrepreneurial economy. In fact, a study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that student debt has a measurable negative impact on new business creation.

Recommitting Ourselves To Free and Competitive Markets

There is no principle more basic to capitalism than that of free markets, which provide the “invisible hand” to efficiently allocate resources. When market signals get corrupted, we get less of what we need and more of what we don’t. Without vigorous competition, firms feel less of a need to invest and innovate, and become less productive.

There is abundant evidence that is exactly what has happened. Since the late 1970s antitrust enforcement has become lax, ushering in a new gilded age. While digital technology was hyped as a democratizing force, over 75% of industries have seen a rise in concentration levels since the late 1990s, which has led to a decline in business dynamism.

The problem isn’t just monopoly power dominating consumers, either, but also monopsony, or domination of suppliers by buyers, especially in labor markets. There is increasing evidence of collusion among employers designed to keep wages low, while an astonishing abuse of non-compete agreements that have affected more than a third of the workforce.

In a sense, this is nothing new. Adam Smith himself observed in The Wealth of Nations that “Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

Getting Back On Track

In the final analysis, solving the productivity puzzle shouldn’t be that complicated. It seems that everything we need to do we’ve done before. We built a scientific architecture that remains unparalleled even today. We led the world in educating our people. American markets were the most competitive on the planet.

Yet somewhere we lost our way. Beginning in the early 1970s, we started reducing our investment in scientific research and public education. In the early 1980s, the Chicago school of competition law started to gain traction and antitrust enforcement began to wane. Since 2000, competitive markets in the United States have been in serious decline.

None of this was inevitable. We made choices and those choices had consequences. We can make other ones. We can choose to invest in discovering new knowledge, educate our children without impoverishing them, to demand our industries compete and hold our institutions to account. We’ve done these things before and can do so again.

All that’s left is the will and the understanding that the economy doesn’t exist in the financial press, on the floor of the stock markets or in the boardrooms of large corporations, but in our own welfare as well as in our ability to actualize our potential and realize our dreams. Our economy should be there to serve our needs, not the other way around.

– Greg


Image: Unsplash

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