As regular readers will know, I’ve had a long debate with the Productivity Commission on the sources of the supposed ‘productivity surge’ of the 1990s, which, I’ve suggested was primarily the result of increased work intensity and unmeasured increases in working hours at a time of high job insecurity. I was looking back at some of these discussions when Google turned up a Hansard transcript of hearings of the Senate Standing Committee on Economics in 2012. It turns out that the Commission now agrees with me, and has done so for some time. To quote the Commission’s expert witness, Dr Jenny Gordon
There was a very big debate with the former branch head, Dean Parham, who did a lot of work on productivity. He looked at the effect of the reforms and ICT, which is one of the points that Professor Quiggin made, in trying to explain the productivity boom of the 1990s in terms of what actually happened. Professor Quiggin’s main point is that work intensity is important, which is quite hard to measure but, in fact, is a major source of productivity growth. If people work smarter and work harder while they are at work, that will improve productivity. So it is cutting the fat of organisations, I suppose you could call it. The other point is that people are working longer hours. But the way the productivity measurement is done takes account of the hours of work. That is actually data collected through ABS surveys of individuals reporting the hours that they work. So we could measures hours properly. It is hard to measure work intensity. It does appear and it is a source of productivity growth … So we were in full agreement with that. So the debate was settled back in the mid-2000s.
It’s good that we are in agreement this far. I would add though that productivity growth achieved by working harder does not, in general, improve economic welfare. As for “working smarter”, if this is a reference to technological progress, it’s fine. In my experience, however, it’s usually management-speak for “do the same job with less resources, and work out for yourself how to do it”.
More importantly, the key implication of my analysis is that, to achieve sustainable improvements in living standards, we ought to be focusing on getting the macro issues right rather than lining up for another round of microeconomic reform. Increases in work intensity don’t last, as experience since the 1990s has shown. Genuine long-term improvements in the productivity of the economy can be gained only through educating the workforce to take account of improvements in technology (only a small proportion of which are generated domestically) and through macroeconomic and labour market policies that avoid wasting human potential through unemployment and other forms of social exclusion.
fn1. In the same hearing I cite here, PC Chairman Gary Banks described it as a ‘rich’ and ‘ongoing’ dialogue. I’ve certainly learned a lot from it, and I hope the same for the Commission and any onlookers patient enough to follow it.
fn2. Not particularly germane, but interesting to this post is that Dr Gordon is married to Brian Schmidt, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics