The “productivity paradox”


Dec 10, JDN 2458098

Take a look at this graph of manufacturing output per worker-hour:


From 1988 to 2008, it was growing at a steady pace. In 2008 and 2009 it took a dip due to the Great Recession; no big surprise there. But then since 2012 it has been… completely flat. If we take this graph at face value, it would imply that manufacturing workers today can produce no more output than workers five years ago, and indeed only about 10% more than workers a decade ago. Whereas, a worker in 2008 was producing over 60% more than a worker in 1998, who was producing over 40% more than a worker in 1988.

Many economists call this the “productivity paradox”, and use it to argue that we don’t really need to worry about robots taking all our jobs any time soon. I think this view is mistaken.

The way we measure productivity is fundamentally wrongheaded, and is probably the sole cause of this “paradox”.

First of all, we use total hours scheduled to work, not total hours actually doing productive work. This is obviously much, much easier to measure, which is why we do it. But if you think for a moment about how the 40-hour workweek norm is going to clash with rapidly rising real productivity, it becomes apparent why this isn’t going to be a good measure.
When a worker finds a way to get done in 10 hours what used to take 40 hours, what does that worker’s boss do? Send them home after 10 hours because the job is done? Give them a bonus for their creativity? Hardly. That would be far too rational. They assign them more work, while paying them exactly the same. Recognizing this, what is such a worker to do? The obvious answer is to pretend to work the other 30 hours, while in fact doing something more pleasant than working.
And indeed, so-called “worker distraction” has been rapidly increasing. People are right to blame smartphones, I suppose, but not for the reasons they think. It’s not that smartphones are inherently distracting devices. It’s that smartphones are the cutting edge of a technological revolution that has made most of our work time unnecessary, so due to our fundamentally defective management norms they create overwhelming incentives to waste time at work to avoid getting drenched in extra tasks for no money.

That would probably be enough to explain the “paradox” by itself, but there is a deeper reason that in the long run is even stronger. It has to do with the way we measure “output”.

It might surprise you to learn that economists almost never consider output in terms of the actual number of cars produced, buildings constructed, songs written, or software packages developed. The standard measures of output are all in the form of so-called “real GDP”; that is, the dollar value of output produced.

They do adjust for indexes of inflation, but as I’ll show in a moment this still creates a fundamentally biased picture of the productivity dynamics.

Consider a world with only three industries: Housing, Food, and Music.

Productivity in Housing doesn’t change at all. Producing a house cost 10,000 worker-hours in 1950, and cost 10,000 worker-hours in 2000. Nominal price of houses has rapidly increased, from $10,000 in 1950 to $200,000 in 2000.

Productivity in Food rises moderately fast. Producing 1,000 meals cost 1,000 worker-hours in 1950, and cost 100 worker-hours in 2000. Nominal price of food has increased slowly, from $1,000 per 1,000 meals in 1950 to $5,000 per 1,000 meals in 2000.

Productivity in Music rises extremely fast. Producing 1,000 performances cost 10,000 worker-hours in 1950, and cost 1 worker-hour in 2000. Nominal price of music has collapsed, from $100,000 per 1,000 performances in 1950 to $1,000 per 1,000 performances in 2000.

This is of course an extremely stylized version of what has actually happened: Housing has gotten way more expensive, food has stayed about the same in price while farm employment has plummeted, and the rise of digital music has brought about a new Renaissance in actual music production and listening while revenue for the music industry has collapsed. There is a very nice Vox article on the “productivity paradox” showing a graph of how prices have changed in different industries.

How would productivity appear in the world I’ve just described, by standard measures? Well, to say that I actually need to say something about how consumers substitute across industries. But I think I’ll be forgiven in this case for saying that there is no substitution whatsoever; you can’t eat music or live in a burrito. There’s also a clear Maslow hierarchy here: They say that man cannot live by bread alone, but I think living by Led Zeppelin alone is even harder.

Consumers will therefore choose like this: Over 10 years, buy 1 house, 10,000 meals, and as many performances as you can afford after that. Further suppose that each person had $2,100 per year to spend in 1940-1950, and $50,000 per year to spend in 1990-2000. (This is approximately true for actual nominal US GDP per capita.)

Total funds: $21,000

1 house = $10,000

10,000 meals = $10,000

Remaining funds: $1,000

Performances purchased: 10


Total funds: $500,000

1 house = $200,000

10,000 meals = $50,000

Remaining funds: $250,000

Performances purchased: 250,000

(Do you really listen to this much music? 250,000 performances over 10 years is about 70 songs per day. If each song is 3 minutes, that’s only about 3.5 hours per day. If you listen to music while you work or watch a couple of movies with musical scores, yes, you really do listen to this much music! The unrealistic part is assuming that people in 1950 listen to so little, given that radio was already widespread. But if you think of music as standing in for all media, the general trend of being able to consume vastly more media in the digital age is clearly correct.)

Now consider how we would compute a price index for each time period. We would construct a basket of goods and determine the price of that basket in each time period, then adjust prices until that basket has a constant price.

Here, the basket would probably be what people bought in 1940-1950: 1 house, 10,000 meals, and 400 music performances.

In 1950, this basket cost $10,000+$10,000+$100 = $21,000.

In 2000, this basket cost $200,000+$50,000+$400 = $150,400.

This means that our inflation adjustment is $150,400/$21,000 = 7 to 1. This means that we would estimate the real per-capita GDP in 1950 at about $14,700. And indeed, that’s about the actual estimate of real per-capita GDP in 1950.

So, what would we say about productivity?

Sales of houses in 1950 were 1 per person, costing 10,000 worker hours.

Sales of food in 1950 were 10,000 per person, costing 10,000 worker hours.

Sales of music in 1950 were 400 per person, costing 4,000 worker hours.

Worker hours per person are therefore 24,000.

Sales of houses in 2000 were 1 per person, costing 10,000 worker hours.

Sales of food in 2000 were 10,000 per person, costing 1,000 worker hours.

Sales of music in 2000 were 250,000 per person, costing 25,000 worker hours.

Worker hours per person are therefore 36,000.

Therefore we would estimate that productivity rose from $14,700/24,000 = $0.61 per worker-hour to $50,000/36,000 = $1.40 per worker-hour. This is an annual growth rate of about 1.7%, which is again, pretty close to the actual estimate of productivity growth. For such a highly stylized model, my figures are doing remarkably well. (Honestly, better than I thought they would!)

But think about how much actual productivity rose, at least in the industries where it did.

We produce 10 times as much food per worker hour after 50 years, which is an annual growth rate of 4.7%, or three times the estimated growth rate.

We produce 10,000 times as much music per worker hour after 50 years, which is an annual growth rate of over 20%, or almost twelve times the estimated growth rate.

Moreover, should music producers be worried about losing their jobs to automation? Absolutely! People simply won’t be able to listen to much more music than they already are, so any continued increases in music productivity are going to make musicians lose jobs. And that was already allowing for music consumption to increase by a factor of over 600.

Of course, the real world has a lot more industries than this, and everything is a lot more complicated. We do actually substitute across some of those industries, unlike in this model.

But I hope I’ve gotten at least the basic point across that when things become drastically cheaper as technological progress often does, simply adjusting for inflation doesn’t do the job. One dollar of music today isn’t the same thing as one dollar of music a century ago, even if you inflation-adjust their dollars to match ours. We ought to be measuring in hours of music; an hour of music is much the same thing as an hour of music a century ago.

And likewise, that secretary/weather forecaster/news reporter/accountant/musician/filmmaker in your pocket that you call a “smartphone” really ought to be counted as more than just a simple inflation adjustment on its market price. The fact that it is mind-bogglingly cheaper to get these services than it used to be is the technological progress we care about; it’s not some statistical artifact to be removed by proper measurement.

Combine that with actually measuring the hours of real, productive work, and I think you’ll find that productivity is still rising quite rapidly, and that we should still be worried about what automation is going to do to our jobs.

Will robots take our jobs?

JDN 2457451
I briefly discussed this topic before, but I thought it deserved a little more depth. Also, the SF author in me really likes writing this sort of post where I get to speculate about futures that are utopian, dystopian, or (most likely) somewhere in between.

The fear is quite widespread, but how realistic is it? Will robots in fact take all our jobs?

Most economists do not think so. Robert Solow famously quipped, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” (It never quite seemed to occur to him that this might be a flaw in the way we measure productivity statistics.)

By the usual measure of labor productivity, robots do not appear to have had a large impact. Indeed, their impact appears to have been smaller than almost any other major technological innovation.

Using BLS data (which was formatted badly and thus a pain to clean, by the way—albeit not as bad as the World Bank data I used on my master’s thesis, which was awful), I made this graph of the growth rate of labor productivity as usually measured:


The fluctuations are really jagged due to measurement errors, so I also made an annually smoothed version:


Based on this standard measure, productivity has grown more or less steadily during my lifetime, fluctuating with the business cycle around a value of about 3.5% per year (3.4 log points). If anything, the growth rate seems to be slowing down; in recent years it’s been around 1.5% (1.5 lp).

This was clearly the time during which robots became ubiquitous—autonomous robots did not emerge until the 1970s and 1980s, and robots became widespread in factories in the 1980s. Then there’s the fact that computing power has been doubling every 1.5 years during this period, which is an annual growth rate of 59% (46 lp). So why hasn’t productivity grown at anywhere near that rate?

I think the main problem is that we’re measuring productivity all wrong. We measure it in terms of money instead of in terms of services. Yes, we try to correct for inflation; but we fail to account for the fact that computers have allowed us to perform literally billions of services every day that could not have been performed without them. You can’t adjust that away by plugging into the CPI or the GDP deflator.

Think about it: Your computer provides you the services of all the following:

  1. A decent typesetter and layout artist
  2. A truly spectacular computer (remember, that used to be a profession!)
  3. A highly skilled statistician (who takes no initiative—you must tell her what calculations to do)
  4. A painting studio
  5. A photographer
  6. A video camera operator
  7. A professional orchestra of the highest quality
  8. A decent audio recording studio
  9. Thousands of books, articles, and textbooks
  10. Ideal seats at every sports stadium in the world

And that’s not even counting things like social media and video games that can’t even be readily compared to services that were provided before computers.

If you added up the value of all of those jobs, the amount you would have had to pay in order to hire all those people to do all those things for you before computers existed, your computer easily provides you with at least $1 million in professional services every year. Put another way, your computer has taken jobs that would have provided $1 million in wages. You do the work of a hundred people with the help of your computer.

This isn’t counted in our productivity statistics precisely because it’s so efficient. If we still had to pay that much for all these services, it would be included in our GDP and then our GDP per worker would properly reflect all this work that is getting done. But then… whom would we be paying? And how would we have enough to pay that? Capitalism isn’t actually set up to handle this sort of dramatic increase in productivity—no system is, really—and thus the market price for work has almost no real relation to the productive capacity of the technology that makes that work possible.

Instead it has to do with scarcity of work—if you are the only one in the world who can do something (e.g. write Harry Potter books), you can make an awful lot of money doing that thing, while something that is far more important but can be done by almost anyone (e.g. feed babies) will pay nothing or next to nothing. At best we could say it has to do with marginal productivity, but marginal in the sense of your additional contribution over and above what everyone else could already do—not in the sense of the value actually provided by the work that you are doing. Anyone who thinks that markets automatically reward hard work or “pay you what you’re worth” clearly does not understand how markets function in the real world.

So, let’s ask again: Will robots take our jobs?

Well, they’ve already taken many jobs already. There isn’t even a clear high-skill/low-skill dichotomy here; robots are just as likely to make pharmacists obsolete as they are truck drivers, just as likely to replace surgeons as they are cashiers.

Labor force participation is declining, though slowly:


Yet I think this also underestimates the effect of technology. As David Graeber points out, most of the new jobs we’ve been creating seem to be for lack of a better term bullshit jobs—jobs that really don’t seem like they need to be done, other than to provide people with something to do so that we can justify paying them salaries.

As he puts it:

Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.)

The paragon of all bullshit jobs is sales. Sales is a job that simply should not exist. If something is worth buying, you should be able to present it to the market and people should choose to buy it. If there are many choices for a given product, maybe we could have some sort of independent product rating agencies that decide which ones are the best. But sales means trying to convince people to buy your product—you have an absolutely overwhelming conflict of interest that makes your statements to customers so utterly unreliable that they are literally not even information anymore. The vast majority of advertising, marketing, and sales is thus, in a fundamental sense, literally noise. Sales contributes absolutely nothing to our economy, and because we spend so much effort on it and advertising occupies so much of our time and attention, takes a great deal away. But sales is one of our most steadily growing labor sectors; once we figure out how to make things without people, we employ the people in trying to convince customers to buy the new things we’ve made. Sales is also absolutely miserable for many of the people who do it, as I know from personal experience in two different sales jobs that I had to quit before the end of the first week.

Fortunately we have not yet reached the point where sales is the fastest growing labor sector. Currently the fastest-growing jobs fall into three categories: Medicine, green energy, and of course computers—but actually mostly medicine. Yet even this is unlikely to last; one of the easiest ways to reduce medical costs would be to replace more and more medical staff with automated systems. A nursing robot may not be quite as pleasant as a real professional nurse—but if by switching to robots the hospital can save several million dollars a year, they’re quite likely to do so.

Certain tasks are harder to automate than others—particularly anything requiring creativity and originality is very hard to replace, which is why I believe that in the 2050s or so there will be a Revenge of the Humanities Majors as all the supposedly so stable and forward-thinking STEM jobs disappear and the only jobs that are left are for artists, authors, musicians, game designers and graphic designers. (Also, by that point, very likely holographic designers, VR game designers, and perhaps even neurostim artists.) Being good at math won’t mean anything anymore—frankly it probably shouldn’t right now. No human being, not even great mathematical savants, is anywhere near as good at arithmetic as a pocket calculator. There will still be a place for scientists and mathematicians, but it will be the creative aspects of science and math that persist—design of experiments, development of new theories, mathematical intuition to develop new concepts. The grunt work of cleaning data and churning through statistical models will be fully automated.

Most economists appear to believe that we will continue to find tasks for human beings to perform, and this improved productivity will simply raise our overall standard of living. As any ECON 101 textbook will tell you, “scarcity is a fundamental fact of the universe, because human needs are unlimited and resources are finite.”

In fact, neither of those claims are true. Human needs are not unlimited; indeed, on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs First World countries have essentially reached the point where we could provide the entire population with the whole pyramid, guaranteed, all the time—if we were willing and able to fundamentally reform our economic system.

Resources are not even finite; what constitutes a “resource” depends on technology, as does how accessible or available any given source of resources will be. When we were hunter-gatherers, our only resources were the plants and animals around us. Agriculture turned seeds and arable land into a vital resource. Whale oil used to be a major scarce resource, until we found ways to use petroleum. Petroleum in turn is becoming increasingly irrelevant (and cheap) as solar and wind power mature. Soon the waters of the oceans themselves will be our power source as we refine the deuterium for fusion. Eventually we’ll find we need something for interstellar travel that we used to throw away as garbage (perhaps it will in fact be dilithium!) I suppose that if the universe is finite or if FTL is impossible, we will be bound by what is available in the cosmic horizon… but even that is not finite, as the universe continues to expand! If the universe is open (as it probably is) and one day we can harness the dark energy that seethes through the ever-expanding vacuum, our total energy consumption can grow without bound just as the universe does. Perhaps we could even stave off the heat death of the universe this way—we after all have billions of years to figure out how.

If scarcity were indeed this fundamental law that we could rely on, then more jobs would always continue to emerge, producing whatever is next on the list of needs ordered by marginal utility. Life would always get better, but there would always be more work to be done. But in fact, we are basically already at the point where our needs are satiated; we continue to try to make more not because there isn’t enough stuff, but because nobody will let us have it unless we do enough work to convince them that we deserve it.

We could continue on this route, making more and more bullshit jobs, pretending that this is work that needs done so that we don’t have to adjust our moral framework which requires that people be constantly working for money in order to deserve to live. It’s quite likely in fact that we will, at least for the foreseeable future. In this future, robots will not take our jobs, because we’ll make up excuses to create more.

But that future is more on the dystopian end, in my opinion; there is another way, a better way, the world could be. As technology makes it ever easier to produce as much wealth as we need, we could learn to share that wealth. As robots take our jobs, we could get rid of the idea of jobs as something people must have in order to live. We could build a new economic system: One where we don’t ask ourselves whether children deserve to eat before we feed them, where we don’t expect adults to spend most of their waking hours pushing papers around in order to justify letting them have homes, where we don’t require students to take out loans they’ll need decades to repay before we teach them history and calculus.

This second vision is admittedly utopian, and perhaps in the worst way—perhaps there’s simply no way to make human beings actually live like this. Perhaps our brains, evolved for the all-too-real scarcity of the ancient savannah, simply are not plastic enough to live without that scarcity, and so create imaginary scarcity by whatever means they can. It is indeed hard to believe that we can make so fundamental a shift. But for a Homo erectus in 500,000 BP, the idea that our descendants would one day turn rocks into thinking machines that travel to other worlds would be pretty hard to believe too.

Will robots take our jobs? Let’s hope so.

Just give people money!

JDN 2457332 EDT 17:02.

Today is the Fifth of November, on which a bunch of people who liked a Hollywood movie start posting images in support of a fanatical religious terrorist in his plot to destroy democracy in the United Kingdom a few centuries ago. It’s really weird, but I’m not particularly interested in that.

Instead I’d like to talk about the solution to poverty, which we’ve known for a long time—in fact, it’s completely obvious—and yet have somehow failed to carry out. Many people doubt that it even works, not based on the empirical evidence, but because it just feels like it can’t be right, like it’s so obvious that surely it was tried and didn’t work and that’s why we moved on to other things. When you first tell a kindergartner that there are poor people in the world, that child will very likely ask: “Why don’t we just give them some money?”

Why not indeed?

Formally this is called a “direct cash transfer”, and it comes in many different variants, but basically they run along a continuum from unconditional—we just give it to everybody, no questions asked—to more and more conditional—you have to be below a certain income, or above a certain age, or have kids, or show up at our work program, or take a drug test, etc. The EU has a nice little fact sheet about the different types of cash transfer programs in use.

Actually, I’d argue that at the very far extreme is government salaries—the government will pay you $40,000 per year, provided that you teach high school every weekday. We don’t really think of that as a “conditional cash transfer” because it involves you providing a useful service (and is therefore more like an ordinary, private-sector salary), but many of the conditions imposed on cash transfers actually have this sort of character—we want people to do things that we think are useful to society, in order to justify us giving them the money. It really seems to be a continuum, from just giving money to everyone, to giving money to some people based on them doing certain things, to specifically hiring people to do something.

Social programs in different countries can be found at different places on this continuum. In the United States, our programs are extremely conditional, and also the total amount we give out is relatively small. In Europe, programs are not as conditional—though still conditional—and they give out more. And sure enough, after-tax poverty in Europe is considerably lower, even though before-tax poverty is about the same.

In fact, the most common way to make transfers conditional is to make them “in-kind”; instead of giving you money, we give you something—healthcare, housing, food. Sometimes this makes sense; actually I think for healthcare it makes the most sense, because price signals don’t work in a market as urgent and inelastic as healthcare (that is, you don’t shop around for an emergency room—in fact, people don’t even really shop around for a family doctor). But often it’s simply a condition we impose for political reasons; we don’t want those “lazy freeloaders” to do anything else with the money that we wouldn’t like, such as buying alcohol or gambling. Even poor people in India buy into this sort of reasoning. Nevermind that they generally don’t do that, or that they could just shift away spending they would otherwise be making (warning: technical economics paper within) to do those things anyway—it’s the principle of the thing.

Direct cash transfers not only work—they work about as well as the best things we’ve tried. Spending on cash transfers is about as cost-effective as spending on medical aid and malaria nets.

Other than in experiments (the largest of which I’m aware of was a town in Canada, unless you count Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, which is unconditional but quite small), we have never really tried implementing a fully unconditional cash transfer system. “Too expensive” is usually the complaint, and it would indeed be relatively expensive (probably greater than all of what we currently spend on Social Security and Medicare, which are two of our biggest government budget items). Implementing a program with a cost on the order of $2 trillion per year is surely not something to be done lightly. But it would have one quite substantial benefit: It would eliminate poverty in the United States immediately and forever.

This is why I really like the “abolish poverty” movement; we must recognize that at our current level of economic development, poverty is no longer a natural state, a complex problem to solve. It is a policy decision that we are making. We are saying, as a society, that we would rather continue to have poverty than spend that $2 trillion per year, about 12% of our $17.4 trillion GDP. We are saying that we’d rather have people who are homeless and starving than lose 12 cents of every dollar we make. (To be fair, if we include the dynamic economic impact of this tax-and-transfer system it might actually turn out to be more than that; but it could in fact be less—the increased spending would boost the economy, just as the increased taxes would restrain it—and seems very unlikely to be more than 20% of GDP.)

For most of human history—and in most countries today—that is not the case. India could not abolish poverty immediately by a single tax policy; nor could China. Probably not Brazil either. Maybe Greece could do it, but then again maybe not. But Germany could; the United Kingdom could; France could; and we could in the United States. We have enough wealth now that with a moderate increase in government spending we could create an economic floor below which no person could fall. It is incumbent upon us at the very least to justify why we don’t.

I have heard it said that poverty is not a natural condition, but the result of human action. Even Nelson Mandela endorsed this view. This is false, actually. In general, poverty is the natural condition of all life forms on Earth (and probably all life forms in the universe). Natural selection evolves us toward fitting as many gene-packages into the environment as possible, not toward maximizing the happiness of the sentient beings those gene-packages may happen to be. To a first approximation, all life forms suffer in poverty.

We live at a unique time in human history; for no more than the last century—and perhaps not even that—we have actually had so much wealth that we could eliminate poverty by choice. For hundreds of thousands of years human beings toiled in poverty because there was no such choice. Perhaps good policy in Greece could end poverty today, but it couldn’t have during the reign of Pericles. Good policy in Italy could end poverty now, but not when Caesar was emperor. Good policy in the United Kingdom could easily end poverty immediately, but even under Queen Victoria that wasn’t feasible.

Maybe that’s why we aren’t doing it? Our cultural memory was forged in a time decades or centuries ago, before we had this much wealth to work with. We speak of “end world hunger” in the same breath as “cure cancer” or “conquer death”, a great dream that has always been impossible and perhaps still is—but in fact we should speak of it in the same breath as “split the atom” and “land on the Moon”, seminal achievements that our civilization is now capable of thanks to economic and technological revolution.

Capitalism also seems to have a certain momentum to it; once you implement a market economy that maximizes wealth by harnessing self-interest, people seem to forget that we are fundamentally altruistic beings. I may never forget that economist who sent me an email with “altruism” in scare quotes, as though it was foolish (or at best imprecise) to say that human beings care about one another. But in fact we are the most altruistic species on Earth, without question, in a sense so formal and scientific it can literally be measured quantitatively.

There are real advantages to harnessing self-interest—not least, I know my own interests considerably better than I know yours, no matter who you are—and that is part of how we have achieved this great level of wealth (though personally I think science, democracy, and the empowerment of women are the far greater causes of our prosperity). But we must not let it forget us why we wanted to have wealth in the first place: Not to concentrate power in a handful of individuals who will pass it on to their heirs; not to “maximize work incentives”; not to give us the fanciest technological gadgets. The reason we wanted to have wealth was so that we could finally free ourselves from the endless toil that was our lot by birth and that of all other beings—to let us finally live, instead of merely survive. There is a peak to Maslow’s pyramid, and we could stand there now, together; but we must find the will to give up that 12 cents of every dollar.