An international perspective on the productivity slowdown

Robert Gordon’s book “The Rise and Fall of American Growth” comprehensively describes the fall in productivity growth in the USA from its mid-twentieth century highs, as I discussed in my last post. Given the book’s exclusive focus on the USA, it’s interesting to set this in a more international context by looking at the data for other developed countries.

My first graph shows the labour productivity – defined as GDP per hour worked – for the G7 group of developed nations since 1970. This data, from the OECD, has been converted into constant US dollars at purchasing power parity; one should be aware that these currency conversions are not completely straightforward. Nonetheless, the picture is very clear. On this semi-logarithmic plot, a constant annual growth rate will produce a straight line. Instead, what we see is a systematic slow-down in the growth rate as we go from 1970 to the present day. I have fitted the data to a logistic function, which is a good representation of growth that starts out exponential and starts to saturate. In 1970, labour productivity in the G7 nations was growing at around 2.9% annually, but by the present day this had dropped to an annual growth rate of 1.2%.

G7 productivity

Labour productivity across the G7 group of nations – GDP per hour worked, currencies converted at purchasing power parity and expressed as constant 2010 US$. The fit (solid line) is a logistic function, corresponding to an annual growth rate of 2.9% in 1970, dropping to 1.2% in 2014. OECD data.

The second graph shows the evolution of labour productivity in a few developed countries as expressed as a fraction of this G7 average.

Productivity vs G7

Labour productivity relative to the G7 average. OECD data

Both at the beginning of the period, in 1970, and at the present day, the USA is the world’s productivity leader, the nation at the technology frontier. But the intervening period saw a long relative decline through the 1970s and ’80s, and a less dramatic recovery. The mirror image of this performance is shown by France and Germany, whose labour productivity performances have marched in step. France and Germany’s relative improvement in productivity performance took them ahead of the USA on this measure in the early 1990’s, but they have slipped back slightly in the last decade.

The UK, however, has been a persistent productivity laggard. Its low point was reached in 1975, when its productivity fell to 17% below the G7 average. After a bumpy performance in the 1980s, there was a slow improvement in the ’90s and ’00s, but much of this ground was lost in the financial crisis of 2008, leaving UK productivity around 13% below the G7 average, and 24% below the world’s productivity leader, the USA.

It is Italy, however, that has had the most dramatic evolution, beginning the period showing the same improvement as France and Germany, but then enduring a long decline, to end up with a productivity performance as poor as the UK’s.

Institutions of innovation, ecologies of invention: what’s missing from the stagnation debate

What’s happening to the economy of the USA? Is change accelerating, are we entering a new industrial revolution based on artificial intelligence and robotics, as the techno-optimists would have it it? Or is the USA settling down into a future of slow economic growth, with technological innovation declining in pace and impact compared to the innovations of the twentieth century? The last is the thesis of economist Robert Gordon, set out in a weighty new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth.

The case he sets out for the phenomenon of stagnation is compelling, but I don’t think his analysis of the changing character of technological innovation is convincing, which makes him unable to offer any substantive remedies for the problem.
GordonTFP
The Rise and Fall of American Growth. The average annual growth of total factor productivity – that part of economic growth not accounted for by increased inputs of labour and capital – over each decade leading up to the given date (14 years in the case of 2014). Data from R.J. Gordon, replotted from figure 16-5 of his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth.

The basis of the stagnation argument lies in the economic growth statistics. Put simply, the greatest period of economic growth in US history was in the mid-20th century. Continue reading “Institutions of innovation, ecologies of invention: what’s missing from the stagnation debate”

The fourth industrial revolution – this time it’s exponential!

The World Economic Forum at Davos provides a reliable barometer of conventional wisdom amongst the globalised elite, so it’s interesting this year that, amidst all the sage thoughts on refugee crises, collapsing commodity prices and world stock market gyrations, there’s concern about the economic potential and possible dislocations from the fourth industrial revolution we are currently, it seems widely agreed, at the cusp of. This is believed to arise from the coupling of the digital and material worlds, through robotics, the “Internet of Things”, 3-d printing, and so on, together with the development of artificial intelligence to the point where it can replace the skill and judgement of highly educated and trained workers.

A report from the FT’s Izabella Kaminska of one session – Davos: Historians dream of fourth industrial revolutions – captures the flavour nicely. I’m struck by her summary of the views of the historian Niall Ferguson – “The fourth industrial revolution, Harvard’s Niall Ferguson notes, is distinctive because of its exponential rather than linear pace, not only changing what and how we do things but also potentially who we are.”

This succinctly summarises conventional wisdom, but almost every word of this statement is questionable or wrong.

Why do we talk of a fourth industrial revolution? Continue reading “The fourth industrial revolution – this time it’s exponential!”

Against Transhumanism – the e-book

Transhumanism: technically wrong, ideologically suspect, and damaging to the way we talk about technology…

As an experiment, I’ve brought together a number of the pieces I’ve written here and elsewhere about molecular nanotechnology, mind-uploading, and the origins and wider implications of transhumanism, to make, after some light editing, a 54-page e-book with the title “Against Transhumanism: the delusion of technological transcendence”.

It can be downloaded as a PDF here:
Against Transhumanism, v1.0 (PDF 7.1 MB).

Nobody knows anything (oil price edition)

Perhaps no single number is more important to the world economy than the price of oil. Modern economies depend on energy, and oil remains our largest energy source, supplying 31% of the world’s energy needs (another 21% comes from gas, whose price now moves quite closely with oil). And yet, huge movements in this number seemingly take experts by complete surprise.

OIl price predictions 2015
The price of oil in constant 2008 dollars, compared with the US Energy Information Authority predictions from 2000 and 2010. Data from the EIA.

My graph shows how the price of oil, corrected for inflation, has changed in the last 45 years. This is an updated version of the plot I blogged about five years ago; I included the set of predictions that the US Energy Information Administration had made in 2000. Just a few years later, these predictions were made nugatory by a large, unanticipated rise in oil prices. The predictions the EIA made ten years later, in 2010, had learnt one lesson – they included a much bigger spread between the high and low contingencies, amounting to more than a factor of three by the end of the decade. Now, only halfway into the period of the prediction, we see that the way oil prices turned out has so far managed both to exceed the high prediction and to undershoot the low one.

These gyrations mean that views that were conventional wisdom just a couple of years ago have to be rethought. Continue reading “Nobody knows anything (oil price edition)”

Land of my Fathers (and they can keep it)

When someone asks me “where do you come from”, my reply is generally “I’m Welsh. A Welsh Jones. Descended from a long line of Joneses” (and Lewises and Williamses and Howells and so on). But then I have to qualify this, not least because I don’t sound Welsh: I sound like someone who’s spent 15 years in Cambridge (with maybe a bit of east midlands/Yorkshire influence). I was born in England (Stamford, Lincolnshire); my father had left Wales to join the Air Force, so my early childhood was spent trailing around a series of RAF bases in the Midlands and Eastern England. It was only after I finally left home that my parents moved back to Wales. The only time I properly lived in Wales myself was for a year in 1967, an experience that was so alienating and unhappy that, even though it was a short time, and a long time ago, it colours my emotional response to that part of North Wales, the Lleyn Peninsular.

The circumstances were this – after a couple of postings in East Anglia, my father was sent abroad, to help with what turned out to be the shambolic and violent end of one corner of the British Empire, in Aden, now in the Yemen. Aden was then a Crown Colony, a strategic port and military base for the British, usefully placed on the way to India and the Far East. Britain’s retreat from Empire reduced the port city’s value, but through the mid-1960’s a worsening insurgency had destabilised the British’s attempt to install a friendly government before they left. By 1967 parts of the city were alternately a no-go zone for the British troops, then being reoccupied with some brutality. Finally (and I think uniquely in the end of Empire) there was no orderly hand-over when the British left, no ceremonial lowering of the flag, no hand-shakes between the Governor-General and the incoming President, just a scramble by the British forces to get out with as much of their kit as they could carry. My father’s part in the retreat, having organised the repatriation of the remaining families, was to tip Radio Aden’s record collection off the Steamer Point quay into the harbour, to make sure the Communist hordes of FLOSY and NLF didn’t benefit from the latest Jazz and Pop sounds (for some reason he saved one Thelonius Monk album, which I still possess).

Aden was clearly not a place for dependents, so my mother and I were packed off to the North Wales seaside town of Pwllheli, where my mother’s parents lived. There my mother tried to avoid reading the newspapers, with their reports from Aden of random shootings and grenade attacks, while the six-year-old me went off friendless to a new school. I remember the terrible food and the boys’ toilet, outside, in the corner of the playground, a slate urinal brilliant green with moss and with an overwhelming ammoniacal smell of decaying boys’ urine. The school was old-fashioned in teaching methods and discipline – I vividly remember an assembly with a purple faced teacher standing on a stage, roaring with anger and threateningly waving his stick above his head. I never found out what atrocity it was that some child had committed, as the diatribe was conducted, like all the other business of the school, entirely in Welsh, a language I didn’t know then (and still don’t).

West End Parade, Pwllheli
West End Parade, Pwllheli, N. Wales. A flat in one of these houses was my unhappy home for a year.

My mother must have been bored, worried, lonely. At least she had a car, a sweet little Mini, in which she frequently drove me to Caernarvon Castle, with which I became fascinated. She would take her own father on trips a few miles up the coast, to see his friend, the priest and poet R.S. Thomas. I don’t exactly know what had drawn Thomas and my grandfather together, whether that was religion, or poetry, or simply a shared gloomy disposition. My grandfather died before I got to know him properly; I know he was a cultured man, though he had dropped out of theological college to become a Conservative Party activist.

Something I don’t remember myself, but which my mother tells me, is that for the first few months I refused to talk about my father at all, or even acknowledge his existence. Continue reading “Land of my Fathers (and they can keep it)”

Science, productivity and the spending review

This post appears on the blog of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, as part of a series in the run-up to the UK government’s comprehensive spending review arguing for the value of science spending. As with my earlier pieces, supporting statistics and references can be found in my submission to the BIS select committee productivity inquiry, Innovation, research, and the UK’s productivity crisis (PDF)

Stagnating productivity is one of the biggest problems the UK faces, and it’s the most compelling reason why, despite a tight fiscal climate, the science and innovation budget should be preserved (and ideally, increased).

It’s clear that the government regards deficit reduction as its highest priority, and in pursuit of that, all areas of public spending, including the science budget, are under huge pressure. But the biggest threat to the government’s commitments on deficit reduction may not be the difficulty in achieving departmental spending cuts – it is the possibility that the current slowdown in productivity growth, unprecedented in recent history, continues.

Over many decades, labour productivity in the UK (the amount of GDP produced per hour of labour input) has increased at a steady rate. After the financial crisis in 2008, that steady increase came to an abrupt halt, since when it has flat-lined, and is now at least 15% below the pre-crisis trend. The UK’s productivity performance was already weaker than competitors like the USA, and since the crisis this gap with competitors has opened up yet further. If productivity growth does not improve, the government will miss all its fiscal targets and living standards will continue to stagnate.

Productivity growth, fundamentally, arises from innovation in its broadest sense. The technological innovation that arises from research and development is a part of this, so in searching for the reasons for our weak productivity growth we should look at the UK’s weak R&D investment. This is not the only contributory factor – in recent years, the decline in North Sea oil and a decline in productivity in the financial services sector following the financial crisis provide a headwind that’s not going to go away. This means that we’ll have to boost innovation in other sectors of the economy – like manufacturing and ICT – even more, just to get back to where we were. R&D isn’t the only source of innovation in these and other sectors, but it’s the area in which the UK, compared to its competitors, has been the weakest.

The UK has, for many years, underinvested in R&D – both in the public and the private sectors – compared to traditional competitors like France, Germany and the USA. In recent years, Korea has emerged as the most R&D intensive economy in the world, while China overtook the UK in R&D intensity a few years ago. This is a global race that we’re not merely lagging behind in, we’re running in the wrong direction.

In the short term of an election cycle, it’s probably private sector R&D that has the most direct impact on productivity growth. The UK’s private sector R&D base is not only proportionately smaller than our competitors; more than half of it is done by overseas owned companies – a uniquely high proportion for such a large economy. It is a very positive sign of the perceived strength of the UK’s research base, that overseas companies are so willing to invest in R&D here. But such R&D is footloose.

Much evidence shows that public sector R&D spending “crowds in” substantial further private sector R&D. The other side of that coin is that continuing – or accelerating – the erosion of public investment in R&D that we’ve seen in recent years will lead to a loss of private sector R&D, further undermining our productivity performance. The timescale over which these changes could unfold could be uncomfortably fast.

These are the short-term consequences of the neglect of research, but the long-term effects are potentially even more important, and this is something that politicians concerned about their legacy might want to reflect on. The big problems that society faces, and that future governments will have to grapple with – running a health service with a rapidly ageing population, ensuring an affordable supply of sustainable, low carbon energy, to give just two examples – will need all the creativity and ingenuity that science, research and innovation can bring to bear.

The future is unpredictable, so there’ll undoubtedly be new problems to face, and new possibilities to exploit. A strong and diverse science base will give our society the resilience to handle these. So a government that was serious about building the long-term foundations for the continuing health and prosperity of the nation would be careful to ensure the health of the research base that will underpin those necessary innovations.

One way of thinking of our current predicament is that we’re doing an experiment to see what happens if you try to run a large economy at the technology frontier with an R&D intensity about a third smaller than key competitors. The outcome of that experiment seems to be clear. We have seen a slowdown in productivity growth that has persisted far longer than economists and the government expected, and this in turn has led to stagnating living standards and disappointing public finances. Our weak R&D performance isn’t the only cause of these problems, but it is perhaps one of the easiest factors to put right. This is an experiment we should stop now.

England’s early energy transition to fossil fuels: driven by process heat, not steam engines

Was the industrial revolution an energy revolution, in which the energy constraints of a traditional economy based on the power of the sun were broken by the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuel? Or was it an ideological revolution, in which the power of free thinking and free markets unlocked human ingenuity to power a growth in prosperity without limits? Those symbols of the industrial revolution – the steam engine, the coke-fuelled blast furnace – suggest the former, but the trend now amongst some economic historians is to downplay the role of coal and steam. What I think is correct is that the industrial revolution had already gathered much momentum before the steam engine made a significant impact. But coal was central to driving that early momentum; its use was already growing rapidly, but the dominant use of that coal was as a source of heat energy in a whole variety of industrial processes, not as a source of mechanical power. The foundations of the industrial revolution were laid in the diversity and productivity of those industries propelled by coal-fuelled process heat: the steam engine was the last thing that coal did for the industrial revolution, not the first.

What’s apparent, and perhaps surprising, from a plot of the relative contributions of coal and firewood to England’s energy economy, is how early in history the transition from biomass to fossil fuels took place. Using estimates quoted by Wrigley (a compelling advocate of the energy revolution position), we see that coal use in England grew roughly exponentially (with an annual growth rate of around 1.7%) between 1560 and 1800. The crossover between firewood and coal happened in the early seventeenth century, a date which is by world standards very early – for the world as a whole, Smil estimates this crossover only happened in the late 19th century.

coal_vs_firewood

Estimated consumption of coal and biomass fuels in England and Wales; data from Wrigley – Energy and the English Industrial Revolution.

So why did coal use become so important so early in England? Continue reading “England’s early energy transition to fossil fuels: driven by process heat, not steam engines”

Innovation, research and the UK’s productivity crisis (the shorter version)

I have a much shorter version of my earlier three-part series (PDF version here) on the connection between the UK’s weak and worsening R&D performance and its current productivity standstill on HEFCE’s blog: Innovation, research and the UK’s productivity crisis.

The same piece has also been published on the blog of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute: Continuing on our current path of stagnating productivity and stagnating innovation isn’t inevitable: it’s a political choice, and it also appears on the web-based economics magazine Pieria.

The longer and more detailed post also formed the basis for my written evidence to the House of Commons Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee, which is currently inquiring into the productivity problem: On productivity and the government’s productivity plan (PDF).

Finally, here’s another graphical representation of the productivity problem in historical context, using the latest version of the Bank of England’s historical dataset “Three centuries of macroeconomic data”. It shows the total growth in hourly labour productivity over the preceding seven years; on this measure the current productivity slow-down is worse than that associated with two world wars and a great depression.

7yearproductivity_blog

Seven year growth in hourly labour productivity. Data from Hills, S, Thomas, R and Dimsdale, N (2015) “Three Centuries of Data – Version 2.2”, Bank of England.

The wrong direction

How does the UK compare with other leading research intensive economies, and how has its relative position changed in recent years? The graph above is an attempt to answer both questions graphically, separating out the contributions of both the public sector and the private sector to the overall R&D intensity of the economy as a proportion of GDP, and illustrating the trajectories of this expenditure since 2008. The UK stands out as having begun the period with a weak R&D performance, and since then it has gone in the wrong direction.

Govt vs Industry GERD timev2

Plotting both the private sector and public sector contributions to national R&D efforts stresses that there is a positive correlation between the two – public sector R&D tends to “crowd in” private R&D spending (1). Across the OECD on average, the private sector spends roughly twice as much on R&D as does the public sector, though in East Asian countries the private sector does more. The UK is substantially less R&D intensive than major competitors, and both public and private sectors contribute to this weak performance.

We can see some different trajectories in recent years. China and Korea stand out by their large increases in both private sector and public sector R&D intensity. Continue reading “The wrong direction”