Productivity gains: Can you top this?

The reported rate of productivity growth, for the last quarter, is estimated at 9.4 percent, here is one report. This is following earlier productivity growth rates of 8.1 and 7 percent, obviously this is good news all around.

But do these figures capture all the relevant productivity gains? Graham Tanaka, the author of Digital Deflation, argues that we do not measure all relevant improvements. He cites better medical technology and information technology, as embedded in standard goods and services, as two undermeasured components of true productivity. Or consider cell phones, which today are better than a year ago, maybe by as much as twenty percent in value terms. Yet not all such quality changes show up in the official statistics. For 1998 he estimates that the real but unmeasured gains would add another 2% to productivity growth. In his view the future will bring very rapid growth and low inflation.

The potential for nanotechnology may be much more amazing, read Brad DeLong’s excellent post on the topic. He writes:

The computer-and-communications technology revolution we have been living through transforms twice as large a share of the economy as did the British Industrial Revolution, looks to last three times as long, and proceeds at a pace three times faster than the revolution in spinning and weaving: it is, relative to the size of the economy, eighteen times a bigger deal than the original.

Brad calls for greater investment in education, and an immigration policy aimed at taking in highly skilled labor.

But might Brad’s view be overly modest as well? In a recent paper, Robin Hanson considers the possibility of exponential growth modes. He argues:

World product history since two million B.C. is reasonably described as a CES combination of three distinct exponential growth modes: “hunting,” “farming,” and “industry.” Each mode seems to have grown over one hundred times faster than the relevant previous mode.

In other words, every now and then you get a discrete change in technology that sends the growth rate through the ceiling, relative to the past. Read this summary as well. If we get another such explosion, Robin mentions the extreme possibility that someday gdp could double in less than three weeks’ time, see this graph. It would have to be something like nanotechnology. In my view, long before this could happen, I would sooner say that growth rates had lost their meaning, they work best for relatively small comparisons across time and space. The point remains, however, that we have seen notable great transformations in the past, and they may recur in the future.

How does it matter?: I second Brad’s call for greater skilled immigration. A more interesting question is whether the U.S. government can get away with huge deficits, if mega-growth is on the horizon. I say we still ought to control spending. Future growth will not come evenly across the board, and unpriced quality improvements will not translate into capturable revenue for either the private or public sector. Imagine a cell phone that gave you immediate and wonderful orgasms, as well as other services, this would be a huge quality boost of sorts. But at the end of the day, stable institutions still will require our government to equalize long-term inflows and outflows. Furthermore we want to make sure we are stable enough to last until this future boom, which again suggests a measure of fiscal responsibility.


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