Productivity everywhere

The best museum I’ve ever visited is the Stasi museum in Berlin. Mainly text and photos, it gives a compelling image of life under surveillance socialism. It even had its own technologies, from the steam iron (to steam open letters), to the pinhole cameras and disguises for agents in the field, to the unique rotating filing systems and square punch cards to record the masses of information. (And how the ratio of information to physical mass – although not energy use – has changed over the decades. Nordhaus’s well-known paper on the cost of computation tries to measure a related phenomenon.)

All this by way of prelude to recommending The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann. Although vaguely aware of the cultural dimension to the Cold War, it was still striking to learn that the East German regime had a poetry initiative among its elite Stasi regiment to try to win hearts and minds. It’s a marvellous book.

One nugget I particularly enjoyed was this: “Publishers, like their customers, had to adhere to the principles of a planned economy: in terms of books printed, the stated aim was a yearly increase in productivity of four to five percent. Between 1950 and 1989 both the number of books printed and the proportion of those that were fiction more than tripled.” It seems to have had some payoff: one international survey in the late 1980s found that East Germans had a higher reading comprehension age than their West German counterparts. This is the kind of productivity initiative I can get behind.

Another anecdote that leapt out: one Stasi guard to one of the poets who refused to join the Party’s youth wing on the grounds of preferring his own interior world: “If you are a decent human being, then there’s no world inside you other than the world you can see from the outside.” The concept was the gläserne mensch, transparent person.

Highly recommended book, and museum.


Productivity and the pandemic

This is a collection of essays that does what it says in the title, Productivity and the Pandemic. The book has a UK focus and, as an output of the Productivity Insights Network, a strong interest in the geographic impact of the pandemic shock to the economy. The chapters range from the future of cities to mental health, from housing markets to entrepreneurship. As always with an edited volume the contributions vary, and few people will want to read cover to cover rather than picking out the chapters of interest to them. Another issue of course is that the pandemic isn’t over so it is quite early to be trying to evaluate its impact.

Nevertheless, there are some interesting chapters. I enjoyed the chapters on global supply chains and on firm strategies under uncertainty, although neither of them offer definitive answers about pandemic impacts. But clearly the questions of resilience and uncertainty will figure in policy debates from now on. Such tightly coupled production and distribution networks might not be the thing in future. (I write as food distribution seems to be in question again in the UK because of ‘pinged’ workers needing to isolate, and a threatened haulage strike, and Brexit.)

I also particularly liked a later chapter on ‘The Paradox of Efficiency’ by Ekkehard Ernst, about hedging risk in uncertain times. This is clearly a related issue but goes beyond supply chain issues to mention ‘over-provision’ of robust public services rather than running them hot. This is a conclusion I drew with some colleagues, looking at NHS hospital productivity in 2020. Ernst writes: “The countries that provided relatively abundant public services managed to fare significantly better in containing and managing the pandemic.”

This is an assertion – there is no evidence provided here to support it – but one well worth testing. More broadly, we need to start thinking about risk-adjusted productivity measures: what’s the climate risk impact on agricultural productivity for example?



Banks versus business

The latest in my catch-up reading has been British Business Banking: The Failure of Finance Provision for SMEs by Michael Lloyd. This is obviously a bit niche but of great interest as the vacuum in finance for growing businesses has often been identified as one of the reasons for the UK’s weakness in translating an excellent research base into lasting commercial success and eventually productivity gains. The stock of bank lending to SMEs in the UK was £166bn at the end of 2018, according to an OECD survey. (It will perforce have increased signigicantly in 2020.) If this sounds a lot, it was only about one tenth the stock of their residential mortgages. The UK banking sector just doesn’t do much business lending.

I’ve long thought lack of competition is a key part of the story. The commercial banking sector has consolidated steadily over the decades – I’m old enough to remember some of those swallowed up, like Williams and Glyns and National Provincial. In this book Michael Lloyd argues that while the development of an oligopoly might have been part of the cause of the SME finance gap, introducing more competition won’t be part of the cure now. There has been some new entry such as Santander, but the newcomers are not interested in the SME sector either.

He anyway sees the gap as a quasi-cultural one, linked to the “free market” philosophy embraced more eagerly in the UK even than in the US, and in the centralisation of banking decisions. He advocates a restoration of relationship banking spearheaded by a state Investment Bank. What we are getting instead is a National Infrastructure Bank – needed, but unlikely to do a lot for SMEs around the country. However, I find the relationship argument persuasive: I’d see it in terms of a vast loss of information that has come about through bank mergers and centralisation. Automated decisions are based on too little information, whereas old-fashioned bankers in boots would have a wealth of information about local SMEs.

It’s a hard problem to solve even with a government willing to have a go. Still, this is an interesting book for those worrying at the issue, well worth a read.


Baumol meets Marx

I read Jason Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation because there was a positive discussion of it on Twitter. I’d describe it as a mash-up of Baumol (‘cost disease’) and Marx (‘exploitation’).

The first part of the book is a rant about technology and why today’s tech will not increase productivity. It channels Robert Gordon and criticises economists like Erik Brynjolfsson (or before him Paul David) for arguing there are delays between innovation and the productivity effects they produce.

I have the same problem with this as with Gordon’s magnum opus: it might turn out to be correct that today’s techs have no productivity impact, but focusing only on digital entertainment and communication devices is completely unpersuasive. Vaccines, hello? The wave of biomedical innovation like the development of mRNA vaccines has rested on the plunging cost of gene sequencing, enabled by computation applied to massive amounts of data. Lab benches, test tubes, and also computers. The transition to green energy supply will require large-scale computation to manage storage, networks and grids. Additive manufacturing has many potential applications including printing organs and tissues. These applications are genuinely slow to emerge: large additional investments in equipment are needed, the organisational and ethical hurdles are high, other discoveries might be required to make them economically viable. We’re lucky so much of the prior mRNA research had been done before 2020.

Anyway, the book halfway through then turns to the growth of the service sector, the automation of routine tasks, and the debate about the potential impact on jobs. It looks back, too, at the well-known decline in middle-income jobs and growth of the contingent workforce. Having introduced Baumol’s familiar ‘cost disease’, it then turns to a Marxist analysis. Having never learned Marxist economics I found this quite interesting but heavy going, as it has its own jargon. Still, it is surely right to consider the impact of automation in the context of power struggles, or class conflict.

The book has some sections where it pauses to ask what is actually meant by ‘productivity’, a question of evergreen interest to me. It touches here on the issue of time use and time saving in services, and on activities crossing the production boundary, making it hard to measure ‘true’ productivity. As it points out, many previously household (uncounted) activities became marketed during the 20th century (‘commoditised’), and are often low-pay and precarious. However, the book then veers back to the more abstract class struggle.

All in all, I found the book quite interesting for its novel (to me) perspective, and it is well written. But much of the (non-Marxist) economic literature it draws on will be familiar to many people enticed by the subject matter. What it adds to the technology debate is, quite rightly, the issues of power and deregulation of the labour market,  beyond discussions of gig platforms. But it didn’t tell me anything new about the productivity puzzle.


Have we run out of innovations?

I’ve been reading old articles about about hedonic adjustment and followed one trail to a 1983 paper by William Nordhaus about the productivity slowdown between the 1960s and 1970s. He wrote: “Is it not likely that we have temporarily exhausted many of the avenues that were leading to rapid technological change?” (1981 working paper version here). Timothy Bresnahan and Robert Gordon pounce on this in their introduction to the 1996 NBER volume they edited on The Economics of New Goods: “The world is running out of new ideas just as Texas has run out of oil. Most new goods now, compared with those of a century ago, are not founding whole new product categories or meeting whole new classes of needs.” (Apropos of Texan oil, see this: Mammoth Texas oil discovery biggest ever in USA, November 2016.)

Gordon has, of course, doubled down on this argument in his magisterial The Rise and Fall of American Growth. (It is btw a great holiday read – curl up under a blanket for a couple of days.)

This reminded me I’d seen this post by Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution:  A Very Depressing Paper on the Great Stagnation.

I haven’t yet read the paper it refers to, nor the earlier Jones one, and will do of course. It’s just that it seems we’ve been running out of ideas for over 30 years. I’ll say nothing about sequencing the genome and the consequent medical advances, new materials such as graphene, advances in photovoltaics, 3G/wifi/smartphones, not to mention current progress in AI, robotics, electric cars, interplanetary exploration. Oh, and chocolate HobNobs, introduced in 1987. Excellent for productivity.

For the time being, I’m going to stick with the hypothesis that we haven’t run out of ideas.