Pushing back on productivity

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.

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Hoover channels LaRouche

Despite my attempts at zombie-slaying, the myth that Rachel Carson advocated and caused a worldwide ban on DDT, leading to the deaths of millions, keeps being reanimated. I came across an example that is interesting mainly because of its provenenance. It’s by Henry I Miller of the Hoover Institute and Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. CEI is hack central, so nothing it produces ought to surprise anyone. But Hoover boasts a Who’s Who of (what remains of) the right wing intellectual apparatus: Hnery Kissinger, Condi Rice, John Taylor and Harvey Mansfield, among many others. And Miller was apparently ” founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology”. So, the fact he can run this kind of thing is good evidence of total intellectual collapse on the right.

The two main authorities cited by Miller and Conko in their critique of Carson are “San Jose State University entomologist J. Gordon Edwards” author of “The Lies of Rachel Carson” and “Professor Robert H. White-Stevens, an agriculturist and biology professor at Rutgers University”. Unfortunately, Miller and Conko don’t reveal that Edwards’ piece was published (like much of his work on environmental issues) in the LaRouchite journal “21st Century News”. And, while describing White-Stevens academic affiliation (dating to the 1950s as far as I can tell), they don’t inform readers of the more relevant fact that, when he offered a patronising critique of “Miss Carson’s ideas”, he was a spokesman for American Cyanamid. That’s right: as refutation of Rachel Carson in 2012, this Hoover Institute Fellow is offering the PR put by a pesticide company in the 1960s, along with a screed by a far-right loony.

I suspect the reason these facts weren’t revealed is that Miller and Conko weren’t aware of them. Their piece looks to have been cobbled together from various bits of flotsam in the rightwing blogosphere.

I’d be interested to see if any of the rightwing luminaries associated with the Hoover Institute is willing either to criticise or endorse this piece. My guess is that tribal solidarity will preclude the former and residual intelligence the latter.