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Trading Away Productivity - Tonelson and Kearns in March 5 NY Times
Howard Richman, 3/7/2010

Alan Tonelson and Keven Kearns of the US Business and Industry Council had a great commentary in he New York Times on Friday. They argue that US productivity measures are inaccurate:

But there’s a problem: labor productivity figures, which are calculated by the Labor Department, count only worker hours in America, even though American-owned factories and labs have been steadily transplanted overseas, and foreign workers have contributed significantly to the final products counted in productivity measures.

The result is an apparent drop in the number of worker hours required to produce goods — and thus increased productivity. But actually, the total number of worker hours does not necessarily change.

This oversight is no secret: as Labor Department officials acknowledged at a 2004 conference, their statistical methods deem any reduction in the work that goes into creating a specific unit of output, whatever the cause, to be a productivity gain.

They go on to argue that the United States needs a pro-manufacturing policy:

How can we actually increase innovation and real productivity? Manufacturing, long slighted by free-market extremists, needs to be promoted, not pushed offshore, since it has historically accounted for the bulk of research and development spending and employs the bulk of American science and technology workers — who in turn spur further innovation and real productivity.

Promoting manufacturing will require major changes in tax and trade policies that currently foster offshoring, including implementing provisions to punish currency manipulation by countries like China and help American producers harmed by discriminatory foreign value-added tax systems. It also means revitalizing government and corporate research and development, which has languished since its heyday in the 1960s.

Much of government policy and business strategy rides on false assumptions about innovation, and although the Obama administration acknowledges the problem, it has done nothing to correct it. With the economy still in need of government life support and the future of American manufacturing in doubt, relying on faulty productivity data is a formula for disaster.

 

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