Can employment ever catch up with productivity?

By Felix Salmon
June 22, 2011

I moderated a panel on financial innovation yesterday, about which more when I get the video. But there was a lot of talk of leverage, which is the hidden turbo-charger in a lot of financial innovations, from credit default swaps to structured investment vehicles. And there was a general consensus that if you want to create prosperity and jobs, then leverage is in principle a good thing: more debt means more growth which means more prosperity. For a prime example, see this post from Gregory White, who reckons that whenever household debt is going down rather than up, “the economy will stink.”

In reality, however, things are rather more complicated. And Jared Bernstein has a great post up explaining one of the big problems: Over the past 30 years or so, unemployment has been high, compared to the previous 30 years, when unemployment was low. When unemployment is low, productivity gains go to labor; when unemployment is high, they go to capital. And that’s a big reason why median family incomes have been massively lagging productivity growth since 1979, even though the two moved pretty much in lockstep during the postwar period.

The challenge I put to the panel yesterday was to come up with an innovation which produces more growth with less leverage, after an entire generation in which debt has been growing much faster than GDP. Better yet, come up with an innovation which produces more jobs with less leverage. We still have healthy productivity growth. How do we channel that into employment, rather than dividends for plutocrats? The fund managers and CEOs on my panel weren’t much help on that front. But that’s the real challenge facing developed economies today, and I suspect that if we look at Germany, we might be able to find a few clues.

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