Britain’s productivity paradox

In 2012 the British economy created 580,000 new jobs yet output stagnated; more work produced the same amount of stuff. Indeed, British workers were producing 2.6 percent per hour less in Q3 2012 than in Q1 2008. Labour productivity is now 12.8 percent below its pre-recession trend.

This phenomenon, of increasing inputs producing an unchanged or decreasing amount of output, which has been christened Britain’s ‘productivity puzzle’, is one of the most perplexing in current economic debate. Indeed, even Nobel laureate Paul Krugman recently declared himself stumped.  

It’s an important debate both politically and economically. Politically, because Labour can point to grim GDP figures and claim the coalition is failing while the coalition can point to impressive job growth and claim they are succeeding. Economically, because increasing productivity, producing as much with less or more with as much, is the root of increasing wealth.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently offered three explanations for this decline in labour productivity. First, the fall in real wages thanks to inflation has seen firms retain and/or take on more labour. Second, business investment remains 16 percent below the pre-crash peak giving workers fewer tools to work with. Third, record low interest rates and forbearance on the part of banks is propping up inefficient enterprises.

There is a grain of truth in all these explanations but we might be missing the wood for the trees. Perhaps the actual explanation for the productivity puzzle is both simpler and more profound. Labour productivity is determined by two things: the skill of labour, and the quantity and quality of the capital at the disposal of that labour. On both fronts Britain has done pretty poorly.

Britain’s labour force is losing its qualitative advantage over others, notably in East Asia, thanks to a hideously dysfunctional state education system. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment which compares students across countries, in 2000 Britain ranked 7th in reading, 8th in maths and 4th in science. By 2008 it had slumped to 17th in reading, 24th in maths, and 14th in science. Any measures which can improve this dismal performance could be expected to improve British labour productivity in the longer term.

It is a similar story regarding the capital available to its workers. In 2001 it was estimated that a British worker had 25 percent less capital to work with than an American worker, 40 percent less than a French worker, and 60 percent less than a German worker. Why is capital so vital and how might we get more of it?

There are two types of goods: capital goods and consumption goods. Consumption goods are those that immediately meet our needs, what Carl Menger called “goods of first order”. Capital goods, what Menger called “goods of higher order”, are those which meet our needs indirectly. Bread is a consumption good, the flour and the milling stone (among others) are capital goods.

If our need is to eat we can satisfy it immediately via the labour intensive method of picking apples from trees or berries from bushes. Obviously this source of food would sustain very many less people on much more monotonous diets than we have today. We are able to eat more and better because we have capital which enables us not only to produce and consume more but also to produce and consume things we couldn’t have before with purely labour intensive methods.

Thus, to borrow Murray Rothbard’s example, Robinson Crusoe could pick 20 berries per hour from a bush by hand but could shake 50 berries out in an hour with a stick. Alternatively Crusoe could make the milling stone, grind the flour, and undertake the other capital production needed to make a loaf of bread. He could enjoy something he couldn’t enjoy in any quantity at all previously.

But making the stick or the milling stone will take time, time we cannot spend either picking berries or relaxing. We must forgo an act of consumption, either of berries or of leisure. We must save, in other words. This is the essential truth of capital accumulation; it comes from saving.

So does maintenance of the capital stock. To borrow from Rothbard again, a truck with a working life of fifteen years which makes 3,000 trips can be said to be using up 1/3,000 of itself each time it participates in the transformation of bread from ‘higher order’ wholesale to ‘first order’ sandwich. If saving is not undertaken to allow for the replacement of the truck at the end of the fifteen years this production process will cease. The capital, the truck, will have been consumed in every loaf it carried on those 3,000 journeys.

This is why countries that grow rich are those that save; they accumulate the capital per worker which enables them to produce ever greater amounts. In the late 18th century British textile workers earned six times what Indian textile workers earned because they had the capital goods to make them six times more productive. This is why we see saving nations in the Far East becoming wealthier as we wonder how our current standard of living will be maintained.

Britain, meanwhile, has some of the lowest savings rates even in the generally savings-averse developed world. We are seemingly attached to the Keynesian idea that consumption, rather than something we do when we are rich, is something we do to become rich. We have a government which can hand out leaflets on budget day telling savers they are on their side while turning a blind eye to quantitative easing and 0.5 percent base rates.

The result is that by deskilling and capital consumption we have become a lower productivity, lower wage economy. There is only a puzzle because we are reluctant to face this grim truth. Greece was recently reclassified as an emerging market. Might Britain be on its way to joining her?    

This article originally appeared at The Commentator


One thought on “Britain’s productivity paradox

  1. “Old fashioned” economists (such as Manchester used to be famous for) would have had no trouble explaining this.

    The economy (especially manufacturing – the “real economy”) is doing badly – yet unemployment has not exploded.

    Why not?

    Because REAL WAGES have fallen.

    Contrary to the fallacies of both the Keynesians and the Chicago people, unemployment is NOT determined by the general “demand” (in the sense of spending) in the economy, it is determined by the SPECIFIC demand for labour at a specific price (wage rates). Both Cambidge and Chicago suggest that falling wages will mean more unemployment – actually falling real wages are the natural reaction to a bad economy in order to PREVENT higher unemployment.

    “But we want to avoid mass unemployment and have HIGH wages”

    Well then we need a different economy – one that is dramatically less taxed (which means dramatically less government spending) and dramatically less regulated.

    It that is “politically impossible” then there is a simple choice.

    Low wages or no wages.

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