Productivity is dead

Just got to the AFR at the end of the day, and what do we find: Falling productivity numbers cloud economic recovery. The headline front-page story too.

The weakest productivity numbers in at least 25 years have unsettled the outlook for an economic recovery, a pick-up in wage growth and a string of budget surpluses predicted by the Morrison government and the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Former Productivity Commission chairman Gary Banks said that while he was cautious about the poor productivity reading, it “caps off what has been consistently weak productivity performance” in Australia and the serious need for structural reform to lift economic output.

“Trying to stimulate demand through monetary and fiscal measures won’t cut it, I’m afraid, and these pose risks of their own,” Mr Banks said. “The causes of [economic weakness] require regulatory and other reforms to enhance the supply side of the economy.”

Public sector spending is notoriously non-value-adding. You can have all the fake GDP growth you like, building train lines in Melbourne and streetcars in Sydney, and who know what everywhere else, but if they do not repay their production costs in higher levels of output, they are taking your economy backwards. And like with the trains and the trams, since neither is even carrying a single passenger as yet, there is absolutely nothing on the ground taking place that creates any value whatsoever. All for very classical reasons, but you’d have to read Mill and not Mankiw to see the point.

Liked this bit too, also for very classical reasons:

While the figures are likely to reflect strong jobs growth at a time of weakened economic activity, including a drop in farm production because of the drought, many economists blame structural problems, such as a distinct lack of business investment, especially outside the resources sector.

My favourite line from Mill, the most radicalising phrase I ever read, was “demand for commodities is not demand for labour”. To translate: there is no connection between the level of demand and employment. With real wages there is a major connection, but with employment none at all.

If you want to raise the minimum wage you need to raise productivity first

The video comes at an opportune time since this is a large part of where our next election will be fought: Business faces world’s highest minimum wage under Bill Shorten. I will also mention that the Card and Krueger study mentioned in the vid for many years played a large part in our own wage cases where I had to spend an inordinate amount of time demonstrating how inane the notion is that higher minimum wages do not cost jobs. They do. Unless productivity goes up, the only possible outcome of raising minimum wages is a fall in employment. The vid makes the case, while also establishing how out to lunch the economic establishment is in yet one more area. Thinking you can create jobs by raising the minimum wage is as stupid as believing you can increase employment through unproductive public spending. Modern economics has almost entirely lost its way, but if that’s the advice people want, there will be plenty of advisors to provide it.

The chart below is from that same article, showing the drop in the minimum wage as a proportion of the median wage which coincided with the GFC and may even have preceded it. A very old sequence, a downturn that decimates industry changes the employment pattern along with the underlying wage structure. Using averages as a measurable reality that can be adjusted by some kind of administrative policy will never ever work. If you want to raise the real wage or the minimum wage you can only do it by raising the level of real value added per employed person. That’s called leaving things to the market, a very old idea that has always worked when it has been applied, but another one of those notions economists in general have long ignored and is now all but forgotten.