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?
The eclectic entrepreneur/economist/law professor, James Bessen, suggests how to boost our stagnant economy in a new book, “Learning by Doing: the real connection between innovation, wages and wealth.” The idea is to make fuller use of new technology by putting more emphasis on practical vocational training, ending government favoritism for established businesses, and by removing regulatory roadblocks to job mobility and entrepreneurship. He also thinks that the greatest hindrance to progress on these fronts is the influence of lobbyists and, more generally, “the growing role of money in politics.” How do we limit the ability of lobbyists, with their huge financial resources, to slow down the opening up of new technology to the broadest possible group of participants? Some people would say this can only be done by curtailing the use of money in politics. But this is virtually impossible. Spending money to get your message out is really just a form of speech and the First Amendment to the Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.”
Rather than trying to restrict the ways in which lobbyists can spend their money, we could alternatively try to immunize our elected representatives from its effect, in one or both of these two different ways:
Pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. Such an amendment would likely create the discipline needed for Congress to be able to set priorities and decide what is more or less important with regard to the overall economy. Spending programs, tax revenue, and the effects of regulation would all have to be considered together to maximize economic efficiency. Lobbyists would have far less power to push one particular program independently of how it relates to everything else.
Term Limits for national office. Knowing that one’s time in office is limited would help provide the strength to make the difficult tradeoffs necessary for good legislation and make officeholders more immune to special interest influence.
Conclusion: Rather than making a likely futile attempt to reduce the amount of money in the political process, change the process sufficiently so that money doesn’t have as much influence!
My last post reported on a new book by James Bessen, “Learning by Doing: the real connection between innovation, wages and wealth.” It makes several recommendations for how the U.S. can better meet the challenges posed by the hollowing out of the middle class, as illustrated in the chart just below from the Dallas Federal Reserve. Mr. Bessen blames one primary culprit for this problem: the growing role of money in politics. For example:
The dramatic growth in occupational licensure from 70 occupations covering 5% of the workforce in the 1950s to over 800 occupations covering over 29% of the workforce in 2008. Such a major change can only be understood as the outcome of massive lobbying.
Defense procurement. For example, in 2012 the defense industry spent $132 million on over 900 lobbyists. It is hardly surprising that defense procurement rules have favored established defense contractors at the expense of start-up technology firms.
The best patent law money can buy. Patent trolls have continued to file more lawsuits, despite the America Invents Act of 2011. A new legislative effort for patent reform in 2013 passed the House by a margin by a margin of 325 to 91 but then was killed by the Senate in May 2014.
Changes in trade secret law. The problem is that more uniform trade law, which sounds desirable, also broadens its scope which then limits employee mobility and the creation of spin-offs.
Strong enforcement of non-compete agreements in Massachusetts protects established firms but hurts startups. This has given Silicon Valley companies a big advantage over the companies on Route 128 outside of Boston.
Mr. Bessen makes a very strong case for the harmful effects of lobbyists and their money in retarding economic growth. But how can we possibly curtail the influence of lobbyists without limiting their freedom of speech? Stay tuned for the next post!
The two biggest problems facing our country today are a stagnant economy and an exploding national debt. Faster economic growth would help pay our bills by bringing in more tax revenue. It would also create more jobs and give a boost to stagnant wages. One of the causes of this stagnation is that our economy has become less entrepreneurial over time as shown by this often cited chart from the Brookings Institution. A very interesting new book by James Bessen, “Learning by Doing: the real connection between innovation, wages and wealth.” looks at both our economic history and our current economy to understand how society can best meet the challenges posed by new technology. Mr. Bessen identifies the basic problems as follows:
Funds have been shifted away from vocational education and community colleges at a time when large numbers of workers could acquire valuable skills at these institutions.
The rapid growth of occupational licensing restricts training and jobs open to mid-skill workers and, in many cases, limits their use of technology.
Military procurement favors large defense contractors over start-up firms, while heightened secrecy requirements limit the development of open standards and the broad sharing of knowledge.
Job mobility has declined, limiting knowledge sharing and weakening labor markets.
Abusive patent litigation has exploded, making it harder for startups and small firms to develop new technology.
Mr. Bessen concludes:“The practical skills of ordinary people have been a wellspring of widely shared wealth for 200 years, and the economic power of mighty nations rests on the technical knowledge of the humble. Provide the means for ordinary workers to acquire the skills and knowledge to implement new technology today and the economic bounty will not only grow, it will be widely shared.”
What are the roadblocks to implementing Mr. Bessen’s recommendations? I will return to this question later.