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PAGE ONE Economics

®

The Productivity Puzzle
Scott A. Wolla, Ph.D., Senior Economic Education Specialist

GLOSSARY
Investment: The purchase of physical capital
goods (e.g., buildings, tools and equipment)
that are used to produce goods and services.
Standard of living: A measure of the goods
and services available to each person in a
country; a measure of economic well-being.
Also known as per capita real GDP (gross
domestic product).

“Human history teaches us that economic growth springs from better
recipes, not just from more cooking.”
—Paul Romer

Have you ever walked through a store and looked closely at where the
products are made? If so, you might find yourself wondering if anything is
manufactured in the United States anymore. As it turns out, manufacturing
output in the United States is near its highest levels ever. In fact, the United
States produces twice as much as it did in 1982, with one-third fewer
workers (Figure 1).1
Figure 1
Manufacturing Output and Employment
All	Employees:	Manufacturing	(left)
Industrial	Production:	Manufacturing	(SIC)	(right)
120

20,000

100

80

16,000

60

14,000

40

12,000

Index	2012=100

Thousands	of	Persons

18,000

20

10,000

0

8,000
1940

1950

1960

1970

fred.stlouisfed.org

1980

1990

2000

2010

myf.red/g/cDQn

NOTE: The red line shows manufacturing output; the blue line shows employment in manufacturing. Starting in the 1980s, manufacturing employment
started to fall, while output continued to rise.
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Board of Governors of the Federal
Reserve System, retrieved from FRED®, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis;
https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=cexg, accessed January 20, 2017.

Where Does Productivity Come From?
Here’s our riddle: How does an economy manufacture more goods with
fewer workers? The answer lies in the economic concept of productivity.
Productivity is the ratio of output per worker per unit of time. Increasing
March 2017	

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PAGE ONE Economics®
productivity enables an economy to produce the same
amount of output (or more) with fewer workers. In fact,
productivity is key to raising the standard of living.
Basically, a country can consume (buy) more goods and
services per person if they produce more goods and services per person. But how does this happen? Economists
say that changes in productivity are usually due to some
combination of these factors:
1.	 Increases in physical capital (both quantity and
quality) per worker. Physical capital (also known as
capital resources and capital goods) are goods that
have been produced and are used to produce other
goods and services. They are used over and over again
in the production process. For example, imagine an
accountant keeping track of a corporation’s finances
with an old-fashioned adding machine. Now, imagine
the same accountant equipped with a computer and
sophisticated software. In each case, one accountant
is doing the work, but the output (and therefore productivity) will likely be higher with the computer and
software.
2.	 Increases in human capital per worker. Human
capital is the knowledge and skills that people obtain
through education, experience, and training. Consider
the accountant with her computer and software,
but imagine she gets new software. Chances are
she would benefit from training on the software,
and her skills will grow further with experience. In a
similar way, the education that students receive in
school and college (and further training and work
experience) is an important part of the productivity
growth story.
3.	 Technological change. Technological change (also
known as technological advancement) is an advance
in overall knowledge in a specific area. For example,
it could be the introduction of new production techniques or methods that allow firms to produce more
output with the same amount of labor and physical
capital. Technological change is the largest contributor to productivity.2 Think about farming. One hundred years ago, a large portion of the American labor
force worked on farms because food production was
very labor intensive. But, due to large increases in
productivity (because of new farming technology),
more food is produced, while less than 2 percent of

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2

Figure 2
Productivity Growth

NOTE: From 1995 to 2010 productivity growth averaged 2.5 percent (top red
line), since that time (2011-2015) it has been 0.4 percent (bottom red line).
SOURCE: Author’s calculation and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, retrieved
from FRED®, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/
graph/?g=c4cP, accessed January 20, 2017.

the labor force is now working in the agriculture
sector of the economy.3

Changing Productivity Over Time
Because productivity determines output, productivity is
a major influence on a country’s rate of economic growth
and standard of living. As such, it is very important economic data. From 1995 to 2010, U.S. productivity growth
averaged 2.5 percent (Figure 2). Recently, however, productivity has declined—it averaged only 0.4 percent from
2011 to 2015.4 Lower productivity growth constrains a
country’s economic growth and results in a slower
increase in the standard of living.
Economists have suggested several theories for the productivity slowdown,5 and most of the analysis centers
on changes in the three factors discussed above.
First, economists point to weak investment in capital
stock. The capital stock is the total available physical
capital in a nation. A nation can increase its capital stock
through investment. The capital stock decreases due
to capital depreciation, which is the amount of capital
worn out or used up in producing a nation’s economic
output. Currently, the capital stock has been growing at
a slower rate. This means that the increase in capital per
worker has been smaller than in previous periods and

PAGE ONE Economics®
that productivity will improve more slowly.6 Economists
disagree about how much this piece explains the larger
puzzle, with estimates ranging from 25 to 70 percent of
the current slowdown in productivity.7
Second, economists suggest that changes in human
capital in the workforce are contributing to the change
in productivity. Research suggests that rising levels of
human capital explain about 20 percent of U.S. productivity growth from 1950 to 2007. Average educational
attainment, which is the highest level of education that
an individual has completed, has been growing at about
one year per decade and has contributed about 0.6 percentage points to productivity growth per year.8 Most
recently, educational attainment has slowed, which will
(other things equal) likely contribute to slower productivity growth in the future.
Finally, some of the slowdown in productivity growth is
likely due to a slowdown in technological change. Some
economists speculate that even with advances in technology, some of the newer advances might impact productivity only slightly. For example, Twitter and Snapchat
have great social value (and the companies themselves
have a high market value), but they likely have little impact
on labor productivity. In fact, some speculate that they
might even reduce labor productivity because they distract workers from their jobs.9 A reality of technological
change is that there is very often a long lag before it
impacts productivity. For example, consider the series of
inventions between 1860 and 1900, which included the
electric light, electric motor, and internal combustion
engine; telegraph and telephone; and indoor plumbing
and sanitation. This burst of technological change has
been called the Second Industrial Revolution. These inventions had an immediate effect, but they continued to
dramatically increase productivity for six decades—­
from 1913 to 1972—as people found new ways to apply
them.10 It has been proposed that the invention of the
computer and internet might embody a Third Industrial
Revolution in that the impact of these technologies will
take years to play out as people find new ways to use
them.11

What’s Next?
If productivity stays at its current pace, slow growth in
the standard of living and wages for workers is likely.
Innovations are, however, by their very nature unpredict-

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able. Some suggest that we could be one innovation
away from a burst in productivity growth similar to the
one from 1995 to 2004.12 Possible sources are the fields
of robotics and artificial intelligence.13 Or the case could
be, as proposed by some, that the age of large innovations (e.g., electrification and computers) is behind us
and that productivity growth (and living standards) will
likely increase little for the foreseeable future.14

Can the Government Boost Productivity?
Economists concerned about the decrease in productivity
suggest that government policy can play a role. Govern­
ment spending on infrastructure (e.g., airports, highways,
and bridges) could increase productivity because it
reduces the cost (in time and money) of transporting
goods and people from one place to another.15 Govern­
ment could also increase productivity by increasing education spending,16 which increases the human capital of
the workforce. In addition, tax reform that creates incentives for capital investment by private firms and more
effective regulations could also increase productivity.17
Spending on R&D (research and development) could
promote technological change, but more R&D does not
always result in new technologies. And, because government intervention has costs, paying for these policies
will result in higher taxes, larger budget deficits, or the
loss of services currently enjoyed. The key piece of the
productivity puzzle—technological change—is the most
difficult to achieve because it is unpredictable.

Conclusion
U.S. productivity experienced rapid growth from 1995
to 2010, but it has slowed recently. Because productivity
growth directly affects living standards and workers’
wages, economists have discussed many potential reasons for the slowdown. They have identified weak capital
investment and a slowdown in educational attainment
as causes but also a slowdown in technological change.
Historically, the largest contributor to productivity growth
has been technological change. Capital investment and
educational attainment are easier to improve through
investment and spending on education; however, technological change is more difficult to fix because it is
inherently unpredictable. n

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Notes
1

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve
System, retrieved from FRED®; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=cexg,
accessed January 20, 2017.

10 Gordon, Robert J. “Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure Up to the Great Inventions

2

McConnell, Campbell R.; Brue, Stanley L. and Flynn, Sean M. Economics:
Principles, Problems, and Policies. 19th Edition. McGraw-Hill Irwin, 2013, p. 515.

11

3

12

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Employment by Major Industry Sector”;
https://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_201.htm, accessed January 20, 2017.
4

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, retrieved from FRED®;
https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=chrH, accessed January 20, 2017.
5

Some economists suggest that productivity is not being properly measured in
that traditional measurement strategies do not capture gains from newer technologies, while others suggest that if mismeasurement is a factor, it is tiny (See
Fischer, Stanley. “Remarks on the U.S. Economy.” Federal Reserve Board of
Governors. August 21, 2016; https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/
speech/fischer20160821a.pdf). Other economists suggest that the recent
decrease in productivity is a return to normal productivity growth. Specifically,
they say the acceleration of productivity from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s
was an anomaly that should not be expected to continue.
6

Fischer (2016; see footnote 5).

of the Past?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2000, 14(4), pp. 49-74;
www.jstor.org/stable/2647075.
Fernald, John and Ramnath, Shanthi. “Information Technology and the U.S.
Productivity Acceleration.” Chicago Fed Letter, September 2003, 193(1).
Fernald, John G. “Reassessing Longer-Run U.S. Growth: How Low?” Working
Paper 2016-18, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, August 2016;
http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/files/wp2016-18.pdf.
13

Powell, Jerome. “Recent Developments and Longer-Run Challenges.”
November 29, 2016;
https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/powell20161129a.htm.
14

Powell (2016; see footnote 13).

15

Miller, Matt and Bullard, James. “Bullard: Infrastructure Plan Could Boost
Productivity” (video). Bloomberg.com, November 18, 2016;
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2016-11-18/bullard-infrastructure-plan-could-boost-productivity.
16

Fischer (2016; see footnote 5).

17

Fischer (2016; see footnote 5).

7

Blinder, Alan S. “The Mystery of Declining Productivity Growth.” Wall Street
Journal, May 14, 2015; http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-mystery-of-declining-productivity-growth-1431645038.
8

Fernald, John G. and Jones, Charles I. “The Future of U.S. Economic Growth.”
American Economic Review, May 2014, 104(5) pp. 44-49.
9

See, for example, Blinder (2015; see footnote 7).

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PAGE ONE Economics®

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Name___________________________________ Period_______
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Page One Economics ®:

“The Productivity Puzzle”

After reading the article, complete the following:
1.	 Define productivity:

2.	The Page One Economics essay identifies three factors that contribute to productivity. Describe the key aspects of 		
	 each by completing the table below.

Factor

Physical capital

Human capital

Technological change

Definition

How does it contribute to
the productivity slowdown?

How could government
play a role?

PAGE ONE Economics®

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis | research.stlouisfed.org

3.	 How is productivity related to a country’s standard of living?

4.	 What are the potential risks of using government policy to try to increase productivity?

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