Labor Productivity is the Golden Fleece

Financial FAQs


Graph: Econoday

Rising labor productivity is the golden fleece of economic growth, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, because major economists maintain it is really the only way workers can raise their standard of living. This means raising incomes above the inflation rate, which is where average household incomes have been stuck since the end of the Great Recession.

The sheep’s fleece was an ancient Greek method of extracting placer gold from flowing streams.  The heavier gold flakes would stick to the fleece, hence the Greek myth of Jason bringing home the Golden Fleece came to signify the accumulation of wealth and power.

For that reason it’s good news that labor productivity seems finally to be recovering. Workers’ output rose at a very hot 4.8 percent rate in the second quarter, up from an already solid 2.6 percent rate in the first quarter. Hours worked rose at a 1.9 percent rate vs. the first quarter’s 2.6 percent.

But we don’t see its benefits being passed on to wage and salary earners. Wages have stagnated and income inequality increased because workers’ productivity hadn’t risen substantially since 2010, as the graph shows; when benefits from ARRA, the $831 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enacted during the first year of President Obama’s administration, petered out. It was much too inadequate to help restore states’ and consumers’ personal wealth from the worst recession since the Great Depression.

“Obama officials and Congress clearly made a big mistake early in the recession by focusing more intently on saving banks — and, thus, bankers and investors — and much less on directly helping families facing foreclosures and layoffs,” says a recent NY Times Op-ed. “Later in the recovery, the decision by Republican leaders in Congress to oppose every Obama proposal prevented the government from doing much to help people regain what they had lost or to heat up the tepid recovery with infrastructure spending and other stimulus measures.”

More government public sector aid was necessary, in other words, because the private sector was recovering from their losses and had little money to invest.

And “Government puts a lot of money into basic research, whereas businesses tend to fund late-stage development that can be quickly commercialized,” says MarketWatch’s Rex Nutting. “However, federal funding for research hasn’t kept pace with the growth in the economy; in the past 10 years, federal R&D investments have risen just 0.3 percent per year after adjusting for inflation.”

A major reason for the rise in productivity at the moment has to be that companies are investing more in new plants and equipment; in part because of the Republican tax cut in corporations’ nominal tax rate, but also because there is a huge deficit in skilled workers that has required businesses to invest more heavily in technologies that replace those missing workers. There are now about one million more job openings than jobs being created each month.

So workers aren’t really benefiting from the productivity increase, as nominal compensation fell to a 2.0 percent rate from 3.7 percent in the first quarter, according to Econoday. When adjusting for inflation, real compensation rose 0.3 percent and was little changed from the first quarter’s 0.2 percent rate.


Why?? Firstly, many more low-paying service sector jobs are being created than manufacturing jobs; which have been shipped overseas by corporations where wage and benefit costs are a fraction of Americans’. It is a major reason President Trump has initiated tariff increases in the hope foreign manufactures become less competitive in a bid to bring home some of those manufacturing jobs.

But that may or may not succeed, as a burgeoning trade war with higher tariffs would probably raise prices and inflation to a level that would nullify any benefits from more domestic jobs. Nobel economist Paul Krugman has said that it could eliminate 8 to 9 million jobs from companies that would shrink as a result of the increased tariffs, due to foreign businesses looking elsewhere for cheaper products not affected by the tariffs.

Increasing the national minimum wage from $7.25/hour last set in the 2009 would definitely help the lower wage sector, which Big Business has been resisting. Workers are producing more than ever, at present. But that doesn’t mean their standard of living will rise because of it, unless employers pass on more of the productivity increase to their employees

Harlan Green © 2018

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About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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