Sunday, March 07, 2010

My Father sends me to Alan Tonelson and Kevin L. Kearns

He asks me whether their op-ed, Trading Away Productivity, in the New York Times this past week was correct.

I'm pretty sure that they are not correct, for reasons I am about to give. But the topic is really not within my wheelhouse, so I went searching for critiques on line. The only one I could find is on CafeHayek; the fact that it is there doesn't exactly reassure me. I also wasn't crazy about the argument.

Anyway, Tonelson and Kearns argue that labor productivity in the US has not gone up, because much more manufacturing assembly is done abroad, and that therefore the division of GDP by US work hours to get productivity is misleading.

But the only aspect of output that goes into GDP is value added. GDP is thus measuring value created in the US divided by hours worked in the US, which is as good a measure of average labor productivity as I an think of. Indeed, the whole point of trade is that different nations produce different things based on what they are comparatively good at doing. This even works within nations, within states and within cities.

Let me stipulate that I have long thought that trade was a good thing, and impediments to trade were generally bad things. My dissertation was on US commercial policy in the 1970s, and to me the evidence showed that protectionism created a lot of bad outcomes without a whole lot of good ones. I can't help but notice that a lot of places over time have become rich because of trade, from the Hanseatic League of Cities in the 13th century to Singapore today. I should note that Swati Dhingra, a Ph.D. student who is finishing her dissertation at Wisconsin, has done sophisticated work merging industrial organization theory with trade theory to show the benefits of trade might not be quite so large was we think. But Tonelson and Kearns seem quite crude by comparison.

But I have not studied these issues in depth for some time, so if I am fundamentally wrong, I would welcome correction.


Don Coffin said...

You are absolutely correct. The definition of output used in productivity calculations is value added. So it corrects for any off-shoring done in the production process. Here's a link to the BLS technical paper defining the measures:

John said...

I agree as well. I hope also the these good measures will come up to positive results.

Unknown said...

good measures like what you presented in this site will surely give good results given that the formula are right. Correct me if you may...

Peter Jonas
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