For the last twenty years, I’ve been engaged in a lengthy debate with advocates of microeconomic reform who claim that reforms produced a surge of productivity growth in the 1990s and that more such reforms are urgently needed. I argued that the apparent surge was the result of increased capital utilization and higher work intensity in the aftermath of the 1989-92 recession. Hardly anyone in the economics profession was convinced.
Their views were unchanged after 2000 when (as I had predicted) productivity growth tailed off and then turned negative as the fear of unemployment decelined and the work intensification of the 1990s was reversed. First, this decline was attributed to a range of special factors (drought, Y2K and so on). Then it was said to be a measurement problem associated particularly with mining (true, but why accept measurement error in the 2000s while denying it then 1990s). Finally, after 2008, it was blamed on the end of Workchoices.
As everyone on both sides of the debate understands (though some choose to deny it at times) “productivity” is code for “working harder”. Microeconomic reform is supposed to increase competitive pressure and thereby keep workers on their toes at all times. In addition, they are suppose to “work smarter” which essentially means “find ways of getting more work done with no additional resources”.
Now, at last, it seems that I’m not alone in casting doubt on all this. Ross Gittins, always more sophisticated than the majority of economic commentators, has picked up some remarks by Ric Simes and Mike Keating telling business leaders to stop complaining about their workers’ laziness and start doing what they are supposed to be paid for: promoting innovations that yield genuine improvements in productivity. I’ve quoted at length over the fold, but do go and read the full piece.
Here’s the core of the piece
Simes, now a director of Deloitte Access Economics, formerly of Treasury and economic adviser to Paul Keating as prime minister, wants to see a more sensible discussion about productivity.
Productivity is obviously important and policy should indeed be focused on lifting it.
“But we do need to be careful about what this may mean in a particular circumstance,” he said. One problem is that productivity is being used as a catchcry for myriad causes, often unjustifiably.
Simes agreed with Mike Keating’s trenchant observation that “business associations, some leading employers and their camp followers in the media are insisting that future reforms must focus on alleged labour market rigidities and reductions in taxation, as if these were the most important influences on productivity”.
And while “there is scope for improved labour relations to make a modest contribution to improved productivity … the main responsibility for improvements in that regard lie with employers themselves,” Keating has written.
“The best thing that employers and their trade associations could do is to stop passing the buck to everyone else for their own failings, and get on with making their workplaces more productive using the existing freedoms that they undoubtedly have,” Keating concludes.
Simes adds that this is exactly what most businesses try to do. For his evidence, keep reading.
Simes’ second problem with how “productivity” is being used in the debate concerns its measurement. “Productivity is simply a less than perfect measure of economic wellbeing, and having the public debate focus so much on what the Bureau of Statistics reports as productivity can be unhelpful.”
Indeed, Professor John Quiggin, of the University of Queensland, had called productivity an “unhelpful concept”, mainly because of problems with the way the contributions of labour and capital were measured in its calculation.
Simes agreed with Quiggin that we’d be better off using a term that was closely related to productivity, “technological progress” – that is, the introduction of technological innovations such as new products and improved production technologies.