Monday, July 13, 2015

Parsing "Generic Productivity"

"Little snippets taken out of context can make anyone sound dumb." -- Kevin Drum, Mother Jones.
Kevin Drum thinks "It's Time to Cool It" on Jeb Bush's assertion that "people need to work longer hours." After all, Bush "quickly clarified" that he was talking about something totally different than what he said. Perhaps Mr. Drum would like to quickly clarify a dumb-sounding little snippet of his own with some ex post facto context? In a previous column on Bush's call for working longer hours, Drum pardoned Bush for a "confusing" reference to productivity:
It's true that Bush's use of "productivity" in the third sentence is a bit confusing because he's suddenly using it in its generic sense, not its formal economic sense, but that's no more than the slight clumsiness that's inevitable in live settings.
This is clearly wrong. There is no such thing as a "generic sense" of productivity. Furthermore, the formal economic sense of the word fits the context of Bush's statement better than would the alternative definition of productivity as the capacity to produce. Bush said, "people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families."

Bush was talking about growth -- economic growth defined as an increase in the GDP -- and hours of work. Productivity refers to a ratio between output, in the form of GDP, and inputs in the form of hours of work. If Bush had a different meaning of productivity in mind, it could as easily have been the misconception that productivity is simply a synonym for output.

What Drum is asking us to do is credit Bush for the keen insight of his retroactive clarification and at the same time give him a break on the grounds his original statement was clumsier than it appeared. Somehow Bush comes out ahead on two counts for being both smarter and dumber than he sounds.

The worst thing about Drum's apologetics is that Governor Bush is not the real problem here. The real problem is a feeble public discourse about economics in which terms like "growth," "productivity" and "hard work" are tossed around as vague euphemisms that have no definitive meaning. Bush was merely reciting a stock jumble of empty platitudes. It was the incongruity of a particularly odd arrangement of those platitudes, whether intended or not, that struck a nerve. Drum urges us to set aside the reflex of incredulity and get on with the droning monotone of platitudes -- the real business of political punditry.

This is a teachable moment. I don't see any point to "cooling it." Here's why:

First, there is the matter of the disconnect between productivity gains and income that Alan Pike mentioned at Think Progress. If greater productivity hasn't been translating into higher income for decades, why should we assume it will magically do so in the future? Regardless of whether Jeb Bush meant what he didn't say or said what he didn't mean, we should be having an intense public conversation about the disconnect between productivity gains and median incomes.

Second, and more germane to the sense in which Bush may have been misusing the term productivity, both output and productivity are weak links in the logical chain between longer hours and more income. Longer hours don't necessarily translate into increased output and increased output doesn't necessarily translate into improved productivity.

Under current conditions in the U.S. it is very likely that those links have been broken. According to a Gallop poll from last August, full-time workers in the U.S. worked an average of 47 hours a week. The Bureau of Labor Statistics gives an average of 42.5 hours a week for full-time workers. This number, however, averages in the hours of workers who usually work full time but who worked less than 35 hours in the reference week due to non-economic reasons, such as illness or family obligations. So the average hours of people who usually work full time and who actually did the week they were surveyed would be more than 42.5. For the sake of argument, let's say that full-time workers average 44 hours of work a week.

If we assume that a 40-hour workweek is optimal for total output then those extra four hours a week are not only going to significantly depress productivity but also would lower total output by a small amount. The latter conclusion follows tautologically from the assumption. What is perhaps less intuitively obvious is that even if we assume that a 44-hour workweek is optimal for total output, hourly productivity would be significantly lower under a 44-hour workweek than it would be under a 40-hour workweek. I estimate around 9% higher productivity for the 40-hour week.

One of the pioneers of national income accounting, Edward Denison, estimated in the early 1960s that as much as 10 percent of economic growth between 1909 and 1957 could be attributed to "the effect of shorter hours on the quality of a man-hour's work." During that half-century, average annual hours of work per worker declined by about 30% while total economic output nearly tripled.

This is not to say that economic output would have necessarily been less if annual hours of work had not declined as much as they did -- only that more of the output would have been attributable to long hours of work rather than increased quality of work. Workers would have received less income for more hours of work. Therein lies the cost-benefit riddle that the euphemistic false equivalence of growth, wages, productivity and hard work doesn't solve. Productivity is  not simply about how much output there is but how much output relative to effort. Way back in 1929. Lionel Robbins wrote, prematurely:
The days are gone when it was necessary to combat the naïve assumption that the connection between hours and output is one of direct variation, that it is necessarily true that a lengthening of the working day increases output and a curtailment diminishes it.
Unfortunately, those days are not gone. Instead the "naïve assumption" has triumphed over economic analysis of the hours of work and the public conversation has retreated to the glibly vicious "magazine of untruth" refuted nearly 150 years ago.