The economist Alan Blinder has just reported, “The Mystery of Declining Productivity Growth” that U.S. productivity growth has fallen dramatically in the last few years. “The healthy 2.6% a year from 1995-2010 has since been an anemic 0.4%. What’s scary is that we don’t know why.” The economists Edward Prescott and Lee Ohanian believe the productivity slowdown is caused by a corresponding slowdown in new startups (as illustrated by the above chart). They point out, for example, that:
The creation rate of new businesses in 2011 was 30% lower than the average rate of the 1980s.
New startups are critical for growth since many of today’s heavyweights will decline as new businesses take their place. For example, only half of the Fortune 500 firms in 1995 remained on that list in 2010.
Startups in high technology have also declined since 2000 even though there is no slowdown in the development of new technology.
Consistent with the recommendations of James Bessen in a recent post of mine, “Learning by Doing,” Messrs. Prescott and Ohanian recommend policy changes such as:
Better training, plus immigration reform, to produce more skilled workers.
Streamlining regulations that raise cost, especially for small businesses.
Tax reform to reduce marginal tax rates.
Reforming Dodd-Frank to make it easier for small businesses to obtain loans from main street banks.
In today’s New York Times, the economist Tyler Cowen wonders whether our economy is in the midst of a “Great Reset.” “Perhaps the most crucial issue is whether economies will return to normal conditions of steady growth, or whether we are witnessing a fundamental transformation” to a less productive economy.
Here’s another way to put it: shall we attempt to adopt better pro-growth policies or shall we just give in to the status quo and accept that we can’t do any better? Are we optimists or are we pessimists?
Last week I summarized the latest economic report from the Congressional Budget Office which very clearly describes both the slow rate of growth of our economy since the end of the recession, the enormous buildup of our national debt in the past five years and also the likelihood that it will continue getting worse for the foreseeable future unless big changes are made. About a week ago the two economists Edward Prescott and Lee Ohanian had an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Productivity Growth Has Taken a Dive”, pointing out that the productivity of U.S. workers has grown at an average annual rate of only 1.1% since 2011, much lower than the average annual rate of about 2.5% since 1948 (see the above chart). They also point out that the rate of new business creation is 28% below where it was in the 1980s (see the chart just below). Growth of worker productivity and growth of new business formation are the two main forces which drive economic growth. “Why is the startup rate so low? The answer lies in Washington and the policies implemented in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that were, ironically, intended to grow and stabilize the economy.” Mr. Prescott and Mr. Ohanian continue that it is the “explosion in federal regulation, intervention and subsidies (which) has retarded productivity growth by protecting incumbents at the expense of more efficient producers, including startups.”
It is easy to be pessimistic about the prospects for change in the government policies which are retarding economic growth. Unfortunately, many political and social leaders have the point of view that it is income inequality which is “the defining issue of our time.”
The best response to this pervasive attitude is to shift the conversation towards equality of opportunity rather than dwelling on income inequality. By far the best way to increase opportunity for those who desire it and are willing to work for it is to grow the economy faster in order to create more and better jobs. If we are able to do this, we’ll all be much better off.