Why has economic growth slowed down?


Since well before the financial crisis and recession of 2009, economic growth in the U.S. (as well as many other rich countries) slowed relative to the 20th century. That slow economic growth is due in large part to slower growth in productivity, and that slower growth in productivity started even before the financial crisis. The materials here discuss how to measure productivity growth, why you should be careful in confusing productivity with “innovation” or “technology”, and what the prospects are for growth in the future.

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Academic References

  1. Baumol, W. J. and Bowen, W. G. (1965) “On the Performing Arts: The Anatomy of Their Economic Problems,” The American Economic Review. American Economic Association, 55(1/2), pp. 495–502. Available at: Link.
  2. Baumol, W. J. (2012) The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper but Healthcare Doesn’t. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  3. Baumol, W. J. (1967) “Macroeconomics of Unbalanced Growth: The Anatomy of Urban Crisis,” The American Economic Review. American Economic Association, 57(3), pp. 415–426. Available at: Link.
  4. Dalgaard, C.-J. and Kreiner, C. T. (2001) “Is declining productivity inevitable?,” Journal of Economic Growth. Springer, 6(3), pp. 187–203.
    • Abstract

      Fertility has been declining on all continents for the last couple of decades and this development is expected to continue in the future. Prevailing innovation-based growth theories imply, as a consequence of scale effects from the size of population, that such demographic changes will lead to a major slowdown in productivity growth. In this paper we challenge this pessimistic view of the future. By allowing for endogenous human capital in a basic R&D driven growth model we develop a theory of scale-invariant endogenous growth according to which population growth is neither necessary nor conductive for economic growth.

  5. Fernald, J. (2014) Productivity and Potential Output Before, During, and After the Great Recession. Working Paper 20248. National Bureau of Economic Research. doi: 10.3386/w20248.
    • Abstract

      U.S. labor and total-factor productivity growth slowed prior to the Great Recession. The timing rules out explanations that focus on disruptions during or since the recession, and industry and state data rule out "bubble economy" stories related to housing or finance. The slowdown is located in industries that produce information technology (IT) or that use IT intensively, consistent with a return to normal productivity growth after nearly a decade of exceptional IT-fueled gains. A calibrated growth model suggests trend productivity growth has returned close to its 1973-1995 pace. Slower underlying productivity growth implies less economic slack than recently estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. As of 2013, about ¾ of the shortfall of actual output from (overly optimistic) pre-recession trends reflects a reduction in the level of potential.

  6. Fernald, J. G. et al. (2017) The Disappointing Recovery of Output after 2009. Working Paper 23543. National Bureau of Economic Research. doi: 10.3386/w23543.
    • Abstract

      U.S. output has expanded only slowly since the recession trough in 2009, even though the unemployment rate has essentially returned to a pre-crisis, normal level. We use a growth-accounting decomposition to explore explanations for the output shortfall, giving full treatment to cyclical effects that, given the depth of the recession, should have implied unusually fast growth. We find that the growth shortfall has almost entirely reflected two factors: the slow growth of total factor productivity, and the decline in labor force participation. Both factors reflect powerful adverse forces that are largely unrelated to the financial crisis and recession—and that were in play before the recession.

  7. Fernald, J. G. and Jones, C. I. (2014) “The Future of US Economic Growth,” American Economic Review, 104(5), pp. 44–49. Available at: Link.
    • Abstract

      Modern growth theory suggests that more than three-quarters of growth since 1950 reflects rising educational attainment and research intensity. As these transition dynamics fade, US economic growth is likely to slow at some point. However, the rise of China, India, and other emerging economies may allow another few decades of rapid growth in world researchers. Finally, and more speculatively, the shape of the idea production function introduces a fundamental uncertainty into the future of growth. For example, the possibility that artificial intelligence will allow machines to replace workers to some extent could lead to higher growth in the future.

  8. Feyrer, J. (2007) “Demographics and Productivity,” The Review of Economics and Statistics, 89(1), pp. 100–109. Available at: Link.
    • Abstract

      This paper examines the relationship between workforce demographics and aggregate productivity. Changes in the age structure of the workforce are found to be significantly correlated with changes in aggregate productivity. Different demographic structures may be related to almost one-quarter of the persistent productivity gap between the OECD and low-income nations as well as part of the productivity divergence between 1960 and 1990. Copyright by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

  9. Gordon, R. J. (2016) The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Princeton University Press. Available at: Link.
  10. Gordon, R. J. (2014) The Demise of U.S. Economic Growth: Restatement, Rebuttal, and Reflections. Working Paper 19895. National Bureau of Economic Research. doi: 10.3386/w19895.
    • Abstract

      The United States achieved a 2.0 percent average annual growth rate of real GDP per capita between 1891 and 2007. This paper predicts that growth in the 25 to 40 years after 2007 will be much slower, particularly for the great majority of the population. Future growth will be 1.3 percent per annum for labor productivity in the total economy, 0.9 percent for output per capita, 0.4 percent for real income per capita of the bottom 99 percent of the income distribution, and 0.2 percent for the real disposable income of that group. The primary cause of this growth slowdown is a set of four headwinds, all of them widely recognized and uncontroversial. Demographic shifts will reduce hours worked per capita, due not just to the retirement of the baby boom generation but also as a result of an exit from the labor force both of youth and prime-age adults. Educational attainment, a central driver of growth over the past century, stagnates at a plateau as the U.S. sinks lower in the world league tables of high school and college completion rates. Inequality continues to increase, resulting in real income growth for the bottom 99 percent of the income distribution that is fully half a point per year below the average growth of all incomes. A projected long-term increase in the ratio of debt to GDP at all levels of government will inevitably lead to more rapid growth in tax revenues and/or slower growth in transfer payments at some point within the next several decades. There is no need to forecast any slowdown in the pace of future innovation for this gloomy forecast to come true, because that slowdown already occurred four decades ago. In the eight decades before 1972 labor productivity grew at an average rate 0.8 percent per year faster than in the four decades since 1972. While no forecast of a future slowdown of innovation is needed, skepticism is offered here, particularly about the techno-optimists who currently believe that we are at a point of inflection leading to faster technological change. The paper offers several historical examples showing that the future of technology can be forecast 50 or even 100 years in advance and assesses widely discussed innovations anticipated to occur over the next few decades, including medical research, small robots, 3-D printing, big data, driverless vehicles, and oil-gas fracking.

  11. Gordon, R. J. (2014) A New Method of Estimating Potential Real GDP Growth: Implications for the Labor Market and the Debt/GDP Ratio. Working Paper 20423. National Bureau of Economic Research. Available at: Link.
    • Abstract

      Forecasts for the two or three years after mid-2014 have converged on growth rates of real GDP in the range of 3.0 to 3.5 percent, a major stepwise increase from realized growth of 2.1 percent between mid-2009 and mid-2014. However, these forecasts are based on the demand for goods and services. Less attention has been paid to how the accelerated growth of real GDP will be supplied. Will the unemployment rate, which has declined at roughly one percent per year, decline even faster from 6.1 percent in June, 2014 to 3.0 percent or below in 2017? Will the supply-side support for the demand-side optimism be provided instead by a major rebound of productivity growth from the average of 1.2 percent over the past decade and 0.6 percent for the last four years, or perhaps by a reversal of the minus 0.8 percent growth rate since 2007 of the labor-force participation rate? The paper develops a new and surprisingly simple method of calculating the growth rate of potential GDP over the next decade and concludes that projections of potential output growth for the same decade in the most recent reports of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) are much too optimistic. If the projections in this paper are close to the mark, the level of potential GDP in 2024 will be almost 10 percent below the CBO’s current forecast. Further, the new potential GDP series implies that the debt/GDP ratio in 2024 will be closer to 87 percent than the CBO’s current forecast of 78 percent. This paper also has profound implications for the Federal Reserve. The unemployment rate has declined rapidly, particularly within the last year. Faster real GDP growth will accelerate the decline in the unemployment rate and soon reduce it beyond any estimate of the constant-inflation NAIRU, even if productivity growth experiences a rebound and the labor force participation rate stabilizes. The macro economy is on a collision course between demand-side optimism and supply-side pessimism.

  12. Gordon, R. J. (2012) Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds. Working Paper 18315. National Bureau of Economic Research. doi: 10.3386/w18315.
    • Abstract

      This paper raises basic questions about the process of economic growth. It questions the assumption, nearly universal since Solow’s seminal contributions of the 1950s, that economic growth is a continuous process that will persist forever. There was virtually no growth before 1750, and thus there is no guarantee that growth will continue indefinitely. Rather, the paper suggests that the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history. The paper is only about the United States and views the future from 2007 while pretending that the financial crisis did not happen. Its point of departure is growth in per-capita real GDP in the frontier country since 1300, the U.K. until 1906 and the U.S. afterwards. Growth in this frontier gradually accelerated after 1750, reached a peak in the middle of the 20th century, and has been slowing down since. The paper is about "how much further could the frontier growth rate decline?" The analysis links periods of slow and rapid growth to the timing of the three industrial revolutions (IR’s), that is, IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830; IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from 1870 to 1900; and IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present. It provides evidence that IR #2 was more important than the others and was largely responsible for 80 years of relatively rapid productivity growth between 1890 and 1972. Once the spin-off inventions from IR #2 (airplanes, air conditioning, interstate highways) had run their course, productivity growth during 1972-96 was much slower than before. In contrast, IR #3 created only a short-lived growth revival between 1996 and 2004. Many of the original and spin-off inventions of IR #2 could happen only once - urbanization, transportation speed, the freedom of females from the drudgery of carrying tons of water per year, and the role of central heating and air conditioning in achieving a year-round constant temperature. Even if innovation were to continue into the future at the rate of the two decades before 2007, the U.S. faces six headwinds that are in the process of dragging long-term growth to half or less of the 1.9 percent annual rate experienced between 1860 and 2007. These include demography, education, inequality, globalization, energy/environment, and the overhang of consumer and government debt. A provocative "exercise in subtraction" suggests that future growth in consumption per capita for the bottom 99 percent of the income distribution could fall below 0.5 percent per year for an extended period of decades.

  13. Guvenen, F. et al. (2017) Offshore Profit Shifting and Domestic Productivity Measurement. Working Paper 23324. National Bureau of Economic Research. doi: 10.3386/w23324.
    • Abstract

      Official statistics display a significant slowdown in U.S. aggregate productivity growth that begins in 2004. In this paper, we investigate a source of mismeasurement in official statistics, which arises from offshore profit shifting by multinational enterprises operating in the United States. This profit shifting causes part of the economic activity generated by these multinationals to be attributed to their foreign affiliates, leading to an understatement of measured U.S. gross domestic product. Profit-shifting activity has increased significantly since the mid-1990s, resulting in an understatement of measured U.S. aggregate productivity growth. We construct adjustments to correct for the effects of profit shifting on measured gross domestic product. The adjustments raise aggregate productivity growth rates by 0.1 percent annually for 1994–2004, 0.25 percent annually for 2004–2008, and leave productivity unchanged after 2008; Our adjustments mitigate, but do not overturn, the productivity slowdown in the official statistics. The adjustments are especially large in R&D-intensive industries, which are most likely to produce intangible assets that are easy to move across borders. The adjustments boost value added in these industries by as much as 8.0 percent annually in the mid-2000s.

  14. Syverson, C. (2017) “Challenges to Mismeasurement Explanations for the US Productivity Slowdown,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), pp. 165–86. doi: 10.1257/jep.31.2.165.

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