The Lion’s Roar III

This is Part III of an article from the Wall Street Journal about how the extraordinary economic growth that occurred during the three decades following the Second World War led people, including economists, to expect it to continue for ever. It hasn’t and it won’t. The present day growth of 1.5%, according to the author (and Thomas Piketty, too, we might add), is normal and should be expected. 

By MARC LEVINSON, Oct. 16, 2016

Government leaders in the 1970s knew, or thought they knew, how to use traditional methods of economic management—adjusting interest rates, taxes and government spending—to restore an economy to health. But when it came to finding a fix for declining productivity growth, their toolbox was embarrassingly empty.

With economic planners and central bankers unable to steady their economies, voters turned sharply to the right. After elections in 1976, Sweden’s Social Democrats found themselves out of office for the first time since the Great Depression. Conservative politicians such as Margaret Thatcher in the U.K., Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Helmut Kohl in Germany swept into power, promising that freer markets and smaller government would reverse the decline, spur productivity and restore rapid growth.

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But these leaders’ policies—deregulation, privatization, lower tax rates, balanced budgets and rigid rules for monetary policy—proved no more successful at boosting productivity than the statist policies that had preceded them. Some insist that the conservative revolution stimulated an economic renaissance, but the facts say otherwise: Great Britain’s productivity grew far more slowly under Thatcher’s rule than during the miserable 1970s, and Reagan’s supply-side tax cuts brought no productivity improvement at all. Even the few countries that seemed to buck the trend of sluggish productivity growth in the 1970s and 1980s, notably Japan, did so only temporarily. A few years later, they found themselves mired in the same productivity slump as everyone else.

What explains the global downshift in productivity growth? Some of the factors are obvious. Once tens of millions of workers had moved from the farm to the city, they could not do so again. After the drive for universal education in the 1950s and ’60s made it possible for almost everyone in wealthy countries to attend high school and for many to go to university, further improvements in education levels were marginal. Projects to widen and extend expressways didn’t deliver nearly the productivity pop of the initial construction of those roads.

But there is more to the story. Productivity, in historical context, grows in fits and starts. Innovation surely has something to do with it, but we have precious little idea how to stimulate innovation—and no way at all to predict which innovations will lead to higher productivity.

It is tempting to think that we know how to do better, that there is some secret sauce that governments can ladle out to make economies grow faster than the norm. But despite glib talk about “pro-growth” economic policies, productivity growth is something over which governments have very little control. Rapid productivity growth has occurred in countries with low tax rates but also in nations where tax rates were sky-high. Slashing government regulations has unleashed productivity growth at some times and places but undermined it at others. The claim that freer markets and smaller governments are always better for productivity than a larger, more powerful state is not one that can be verified by the data.

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Here is the lesson: What some economists now call “secular stagnation” might better be termed “ordinary performance.” Most of the time, in most economies, incomes increase slowly, and living standards rise bit by bit. The extraordinary experience of the Golden Age left us with the unfortunate legacy of unrealistic expectations about our governments’ ability to deliver jobs, pay raises and steady growth.

Ever since the Golden Age vanished amid the gasoline lines of 1973, political leaders in every wealthy country have insisted that the right policies will bring back those heady days. Voters who have been trained to expect that their leaders can deliver something more than ordinary are likely to find reality disappointing.

Conclusion of article

Mr. Levinson is a former finance and economics editor of the Economist. This essay is adapted from his new book, “An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy,” which will be published on Nov. 8 by Basic Books

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