A very interesting approach has just been published in project-syndicate.org for solving the ‘Productivity Puzzle’ – it was written by Professor Diane Coyle, University of Cambridge who is also a member of the newly formed UK Productivity Institute
Although the factors contributing to stagnant productivity are well known, economists and policymakers have so far paid little attention to figuring out how to address these problems in a coordinated way. But the need to deliver broad-based prosperity is more pressing than ever, and this shortcoming must be rectified without delay.
In a 1996 lecture entitled “Big Bills Left on the Sidewalk,” the late American economist, Professor Mancur Olson, made a powerful observation: an individual from a poor country – say, Haiti – who migrates to a richer country like the United States immediately becomes vastly more productive and earns a far higher wage than before. The individual has not changed overnight, so their skills or cultural attitudes cannot explain their improved situation. The answer must instead lie in their new country’s environment
Olson therefore concluded that many (or most) economies are not socially efficient. A better institutional and social context, and higher stocks of assets from past investments, can make an enormous difference to individuals’ productivity, and hence to their living standards.
The challenge, as Olson pointed out, is that individuals cannot change the overall context in which they live and work, except by moving elsewhere. The improvements needed to raise an entire economy’s productivity require coordinated, collective action. Olson’s own well-known research on the logic of collective action explored why this is so difficult to achieve.
Unfortunately, Olson’s “big bills” insight about the need for coordination rarely features in the current productivity debate. Instead, the discussion – why output per worker hour has been virtually flatlining in many OECD countries since the mid-2000s, or which targeted policies might help to revitalise left-behind towns or regions – has focused on numerous potential contributory factors, rather than the need for coordinated action.
For example, policymakers typically undertake cost-benefit appraisals of potential infrastructure investments on a project-by-project basis. But the returns to any project will be affected by other decisions, both private and public. If a new railway line opens, will local bus timetables change to coordinate people’s journeys? Will developers build houses nearby, and will other government agencies open schools in the area? Without coordinated decision-making, investing in new projects where more of the other pieces are already in place will generally look like the better value-for-money option. Unfortunately, government agencies appraising projects are rarely tasked with conducting a holistic survey of the policy landscape.
Regional or local low-skills traps present a similar problem. If there are no high-paying jobs in a particular area, then individuals have no incentive to invest in their own education. And if the local pool of available skilled labour is small, employers have no incentive to open offices or factories there. The only option for people who want to move up is to move out.
Although the obstacles to increased productivity are nearly universal, the solutions will be specific to each place and reflect its asset legacy, industrial history, location, and local politics. There is no science – yet – regarding what kinds of decisions need to be taken at different levels of government, or how to coordinate choices across departmental silos and budgets. (That is why these issues are central to the agenda of the United Kingdom’s recently established Productivity Institute.)
Nobody would be surprised that the factors contributing to low or stagnant productivity include lack of investment in physical and intangible assets, skills shortages, inadequate infrastructure, poor management, and a weak macroeconomic environment. More surprising is the lack of attention paid so far to finding a recipe that addresses these problems in tandem. Economists and policymakers must begin to rectify this without delay.