Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Maybe the end of economic growth draws near

If you think the possible ascension of Donald Trump is our one big worry you haven't been paying attention. Some climate scientists are worried sick over the possibility that climate change may be passing the point of no return while we procrastinate over controlling it.

Meanwhile, the nation's – nay, the world's – economists worry that the wellsprings of economic growth are drying up in the developed countries. Think of it – an economy without growth!

On Monday the Productivity Commission issued a discussion paper exclaiming that there is "justified global anxiety" that improvements in productivity and the growth in national income they cause have "slowed or stopped".

In my job I'm not supposed to say it but, sorry, I'm a lot more worried about inaction on climate change than the feared end of economic growth – if for no other reason than that going backward must surely be worse than not going forward.

Why can't most economists see that? Because climate change is not their department. They're meant to be experts on how to make economies grow, and that's all they want to talk about.

Most economists I know never doubt that a growing economy is what keeps us happy and, should the economy stop growing, it would make us all inconsolable.

They can't prove that, of course, but they're as convinced of it as anyone else selling something.

I'm not so sure. I'm sure a lot of greedy business people would be unhappy if their profits and bonuses stopped growing, but I often wonder if the rest of us could adjust to a stationary economy a lot more easily than it suits economists and business people to believe.

And get this: there is a fair chance we may get to find out if I'm right.

The economy – the amount of economic activity, measured as annual production of goods and services – grows as the population and, more particularly, the amount of work being done, grows.

The economy also grows when we save some of our income from producing goods and services and invest it in additional productive equipment – machines, buildings, infrastructure – thus making our workers capable of producing more goods and services with each hour they spend.

But here's the bit many scientists and others don't get: the secret sauce of economic growth is our ability to produce more goods and services this year than we did last year even with the same quantity of labour and capital equipment.

This is the pure essence of economic growth: improved "productivity" – productiveness. How is it possible? Mainly by giving workers not just more machines, but better machines; machines that do better tricks. By technological advance.

And also, these days, by using further education and training to make our workers capable of doing fancier tricks – including working with more sophisticated machines – and organising work in better ways.

This essence of productivity – which economists call "multifactor" productivity – is what seems to be drying up. In Australia, according to the eponymous commission, it hasn't improved since 2004.

But it's much the same story in all the developed economies. Many economists are starting to accept Harvard professor Lawrence Summers' revival of the theory of "secular stagnation" – that we've entered a lasting period of little or no growth in national income (gross domestic product), especially income per person.

What's helping to persuade them is the argument of another American economist, professor Robert Gordon, perhaps the world's leading expert on productivity.

His contention – which no young person would believe – is that the slowdown in measured productivity improvement has occurred because there is now much less innovation than we became used to over the past century.

Despite the unending wonders of the digital age, and the digital disruption of industry after industry, they just don't compare with the life-changing and economy-transforming technological advances of the past: electricity, the internal combustion engine, even underground water and sewerage.

We spent all of last century fully exploring and exploiting the potential just of electricity – from light bulb to production line to dishwasher to the computer and all it has spawned.

But there's more to Summers' secular stagnation. He argues that population ageing is leading people in the West to save more, while digital innovation and weak population growth are reducing the need for much new physical investment by businesses and governments.

Higher saving and lower investment equal permanently lower interest rates and lower economic growth.

Well, possibly. A rival theory is that the digital revolution and the shift from more goods to more services is changing the economy in ways that the economists' conventional measuring system is incapable of picking up.

We're still getting better off, but in ways that aren't showing on the economists' dials. It's certainly true that much of the time-saving and convenience flowing from the internet is not measured by GDP.

That's been my big problem with economists' obsession with economic growth. It defines prosperity almost wholly in material terms. Any preference for greater leisure over greater production is assumed to be retrograde.

Weekends are there to be commercialised. Family ties are great, so long as they don't stop you being shifted to Perth.

But I'd like to see if, in a stagnant economy, we could throw the switch from quantity to quality. Not more, better.