All economists know productivity matters. But they also know it isn't easy to measure, nor to explain the often large and persistent productivity gaps between nations. A new paper by Harvard's Ian Dew-Becker and Northwestern University's Robert J. Gordon makes a provocative contribution to the productivity debate. Presented at a meeting of the NBER Program on Technological Progress and Productivity Measurement in Boston last week, the authors argue there is a "strong negative tradeoff between productivity and employment growth". The abstract from their paper, The Role of Labour‐Market Changes In the Slowdown of European Productivity Growth (PDF), continues:
We document this tradeoff in the raw data, in regressions that control for the two‐way causation between productivity and employment growth, and we show that there is a robust negative correlation between productivity and employment growth across countries and time. We simplify the task of explaining intra‐EU differences in the performance by reducing the dimensionality of the issue from the 15 EU countries to four EU country groups, chosen by geography.
We provide a comprehensive analysis of the role of policy and institutional variables in causing changes in productivity and employment per capita growth across these country groups. Using both a calibrated theoretical model and several reduced‐form regressions, we document the strong effects of European policies that raised labour costs, such as the tax wedge, employment and product market regulation, unemployment compensation, and union density, in causing employment to fall and productivity to rise before 1995, and for this process to be reversed after 1995.
The policy implications of their research are stark:
The strong evidence that we find for a productivity‐employment growth tradeoff changes the questions that European policymakers should be asking. They should no longer ask how they should boost productivity growth or raise employment growth. Most policies will push productivity and employment in opposite directions, and we have shown that these offsetting effects make the effects of policies on growth in output per capita ambiguous. Our new policy framework suggests that policy changes be assessed as much on their effects on government budgets as on productivity or employment, since the productivityemployment tradeoff causes some policy changes to have a negligible effect on growth in output per capita.
I'm not sure I'd necessarily agree with the authors 'zero sum' conclusions. There are for example some economies which perform better on both productivity and employment growth than others; so it's not always such a direct trade-off. One implication - that higher employment rates or higher productivity in large part reflect different national preferences - has certainly been argued before. But if their general 'zero-sum' argument proves to be more the rule than the exception, it has profound implications for policy makers throughout the OECD - especially in Europe.