America's Widening Productivity Gap

America’s Widening Productivity Gap

Michael Spence and Belinda Azenui,

MILAN/GRANVILLE, OHIO – The United States has a productivity problem, though one would never know it from looking only at the industries producing goods and services that are traded internationally.

Because these goods and services account for only one-third of GDP and slightly over 20% of employment, as is typical for a developed economy, it is important also to consider the non-tradable sector that comprises the remaining two thirds of the economy.

The economy’s tradable sector comprises agriculture, forestry, fishing, and manufacturing – the production of goods, as either final or intermediate products – which in 2021 accounted for one-third of tradable value-added.

The tradable sector also includes services such as research and development, consulting, information, and much of finance.

Taken together, services account for about two-thirds of tradable value-added – a share that has increased over the last two decades.

Value-added for a firm or industry is calculated by subtracting purchased inputs like energy and intermediate products – excluding labor and capital – from total sales in dollars.

It can be understood as the value created by the combination of labor and capital. That value is then captured as income for the labor (forming the upper limit on the average compensation of employees in the sector) and returns for the owners of the capital.

Value-added per employee is thus a measure of labor productivity. And, in America’s tradable sector, it has risen steadily over the last two decades in both manufacturing and services, reaching roughly $185,000 (in chained 2012 dollars) in 2021.

Over the same period, productivity growth in this sector averaged nearly 3%. If this had been true of the non-tradable part of the economy – including large-employment sectors such as government, health care, traditional retail, accommodation and food service, education, and construction – nobody would have to be worried about productivity.

There is no good way to measure government productivity, because markets do not price the value created by services that are generally not sold.

For accounting purposes, value-added for the government is measured by the costs of labor and capital, the assumption being that democratic collective-choice mechanisms will eliminate services whose costs exceed the perceived benefits.

But that approach does not provide much insight into productivity: the fact that value-added per government employee has grown very slowly – by 0.25%, on average, over two decades – just means that, on average, labor and capital costs grew at roughly the same pace as employment.

For the rest of the non-tradable economy, however, we can measure productivity growth, and the results – based on industry-specific data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis for employment and real value-added (in billions of chained 2012 dollars) – are very different than the tradable picture and far from rosy: just 0.57% per annum over the last 20 years.

This reflects below-average productivity levels and, in most cases, low-to-moderate productivity growth in the large-employment sectors.

For example, in 2021, hospitality employs 12 million people, has value-added per employee of $41,355 – less than one-third of the $130,000 national average – and productivity growth of 0.26%.

The health-care and social-assistance sector employs 20 million people, with value-added per employee of $73,624 and productivity growth of 0.71%. For construction, the figures are 7.6 million, $87,425, and -1.21%, respectively.

There was not always a large gap between the tradable and non-tradable sectors. On the contrary, as the chart shows, labor productivity was about $100,000 across the economy in 1998.

But by 2021, after more than two decades of steady divergence, per-employee value-added in the tradable sector was nearly double the level in the non-tradable sector.

By definition, there is no external supply or demand in non-tradable sectors, and thus no external competition or specialization.

These sectors must therefore be supplied by domestic and even local entities. Put simply, the supply and demand side must match.

Today, however, many non-tradable parts of the economy – including all the large-employment ones – are experiencing labor shortages.

This is partly because factors like stress, safety issues, low compensation, and lack of flexibility are driving workers away from these jobs.

But skills gaps are also playing a role. Given this, removing barriers to the acquisition of higher-level skills and incomes is a critical component of any structural-transition agenda.

Demand for health care, hospitality, and construction services is not going to drop. So, labor-supply constraints may lead to higher wages and higher prices, raising incomes and measured labor productivity to some extent.

But more must be done to boost productivity growth in low-productivity sectors, thereby mitigating supply constraints, which population aging is set to exacerbate.

Digital technologies have been an important driver of productivity growth in rapidly expanding industries.

Given recent breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence, there is every reason to believe this will continue.

But progress in high-end services and manufacturing alone is not enough. These powerful technologies must also be applied in low-value-added, low-wage, and low-productivity-growth parts of the economy.

Given labor-supply constraints and economic shocks – linked, for example, to climate change and geopolitics – the case for productivity-boosting interventions is clear.

Unless policymakers use a combination of investment and incentives to reverse negative productivity trends, the US will achieve modest growth, at best.

Worse, the growth that it does attain will be highly uneven, excluding many from its benefits.

Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate in economics, is Emeritus Professor of Economics and a former dean of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Belinda Azenui is Assistant Professor of Economics at Denison University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.