Trading Away Productivity

via The New York Times

By ALAN TONELSON and KEVIN L. KEARNS
Washington

FOR a quarter-century, American economic policy has assumed that the keys to durable national prosperity are deregulation, free trade and a swift transition to a post-industrial, services-dominated future.

Such policies, advocates say, drive innovation, which leads to enormous labor productivity and wage gains — more than enough, supposedly, to make up for the labor disruptions that accompany free trade and de-industrialization.

In reality, though, wage gains for the average worker have lagged behind productivity since the early 1980s, a situation that free-traders usually attribute to workers failing to retrain themselves after seeing their jobs outsourced.

But what if wages lag because productivity itself is being grossly overstated, especially in the nation’s manufacturing sector? Then, suddenly, a cornerstone of American economic policy would begin to crumble.

Productivity measures how many worker hours are needed for a given unit of output during a given time period; when hours fall relative to output, labor productivity increases. In 2009, the data show, Americans needed 40 percent fewer hours to produce the same unit of output as in 1980.

But there’s a problem: labor productivity figures, which are calculated by the Labor Department, count only worker hours in America, even though American-owned factories and labs have been steadily transplanted overseas, and foreign workers have contributed significantly to the final products counted in productivity measures.

The result is an apparent drop in the number of worker hours required to produce goods — and thus increased productivity. But actually, the total number of worker hours does not necessarily change.

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