Thursday, July 20, 2017

Zero-Sum Productivity

Lord Adair Turner has a lovely article on the future of productivity (excerpt):

Is Productivity Growth Becoming Irrelevant?

LONDON – As the Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow noted in 1987, computers are “everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” Since then, the so-called productivity paradox has become ever more striking….

…As we get richer, measured productivity may inevitably slow, and measured GDP per capita may tell us ever less about trends in human welfare….

…Our standard mental model of productivity growth reflects the transition from agriculture to industry….

But two other developments are possible. Suppose the more productive farmers have no desire for washing machines or cars, but instead employ the 50 surplus workers either as low-paid domestic servants or higher-paid artists, providing face-to-face and difficult-to-automate services. Then, as the late William Baumol, a professor at Princeton University, argued in 1966, overall productivity growth will slowly decline to zero, even if productivity growth within agriculture never slows.

Or suppose that 25 of the surplus farmers become criminals, and the other 25 police. Then the benefit to human welfare is nil, even though measured productivity rises if public services are valued, as per standard convention, at input cost.

The growth of difficult-to-automate service activities may explain some of the productivity slowdown….

…The growth of “zero-sum” activities may, however, be even more important. Look around the economy, and it’s striking how much high-talent manpower is devoted to activities that cannot possibly increase human welfare, but entail competition for the available economic pie. Such activities have become ubiquitous: legal services, policing, and prisons; cybercrime and the army of experts defending organizations against it; financial regulators trying to stop mis-selling and the growing ranks of compliance officers employed in response; the huge resources devoted to US election campaigns; real-estate services that facilitate the exchange of already-existing assets; and much financial trading….

In a lot of ways, my thoughts on productivity (and thus on future economic growth) parallel Lord Turner’s, though I’m not all-in on the idea of “zero-sum” productivity. Some of these activities relate to trust in a society of strangers – signalling mechanisms that say that agents are abiding by the rules of the game, without which other activities would not take place.

Having said that, there is a case to be made that we may have taken things too far; or that trust within society itself has fallen, and the cost of overcoming that barrier has risen. I can’t say I’ve thought this whole aspect of it through, but I’m not totally ready to dismiss much of modern human activity as having no impact on human welfare.

Regardless, a powerfully thought-provoking read. Worth your time.

No comments:

Post a Comment