Productivity and unemployment

I am growing increasingly annoyed with people who argue that the dark side of productivity growth is unemployment. The Economist, which ought to know better, says we are overproductive. CNN Money discusses the problem of productivity, the President blames productivity growth for unemployment. Even someone as sophisticated as Brad DeLong writes “with productivity surging, it’s hard to be pessimistic about GDP growth, but it’s easy to be pessimistic about unemployment” which seems to suggest that if only productivity growth were lower, employment would be higher.

And yet the “dark side” of productivity is merely another form of the Luddite fallacy – the idea that new technology destroys jobs. If the Luddite fallacy were true we would all be out of work because productivity has been increasing for two centuries. Sure, some say, that may be true in the long run but what about the short run? Even in the short run there is no necessary connection between productivity growth and job loss. In the computer industry, for example, productivity growth has led to falling prices and a bigger not smaller industry. If demand is inelastic then productivity growth can create short-term unemployment, especially at the level of the industry experiencing the growth – less likely but not impossible is that productivity growth leads to short-term economy-wide unemployment.

The more typical case, however, is that productivity growth leads to higher real wages and lower unemployment. Indeed, in the now fairly standard real business cycle models a boom is caused by a positive productivity shock and a recession by a negative shock. Empirical evidence supports the idea that positive productivity shocks lead to lower unemployment.

Why then do we see in very recent data a correlation between productivity growth and unemployment? One reason may be reverse causation. When firms fire workers they tend to fire the least productive first leading to an increase in average productivity. Workers may also work harder when unemployment threatens (an efficiency wage explanation). Thus, an increase in unemployment can cause an increase in productivity per hour. But in such a situation diminished productivity would certainly not lead to higher employment!

Bottom line in my opinion is this: productivity growth and unemployment are mostly unrelated. If productivity growth were currently lower we would have lower real wages and unemployment would be just as high. As a rule – and as a rule to follow – productivity growth is an unalloyed blessing.