We’re in a Low-Growth World. How Did We Get Here?
by Neil Irwin
One central fact about the global economy lurks just beneath the year’s remarkable headlines: Economic growth in advanced nations has been weaker for longer than it has been in the lifetime of most people on earth.
The United States is adding jobs at a healthy clip, as a new report showed Friday, and the unemployment rate is relatively low. But that is happening despite a long-term trend of much lower growth, both in the United States and other advanced nations, than was evident for most of the post-World War II era.
This trend helps explain why incomes have risen so slowly since the turn of the century, especially for those who are not top earners. It is behind the cheap gasoline you put in the car and the ultralow interest rates you earn on your savings. It is crucial to understanding the rise of Donald J. Trump, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and the rise of populist movements across Europe.
This slow growth is not some new phenomenon, but rather the way it has been for 15 years and counting. In the United States, per-person gross domestic product rose by an average of 2.2 percent a year from 1947 through 2000 — but starting in 2001 has averaged only 0.9 percent. The economies of Western Europe and Japan have done worse than that.
Over long periods, that shift implies a radically slower improvement in living standards. In the year 2000, per-person G.D.P. — which generally tracks with the average American’s income — was about $45,000. But if growth in the second half of the 20th century had been as weak as it has been since then, that number would have been only about $20,000.
To make matters worse, fewer and fewer people are seeing the spoils of what growth there is. According to a new analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute, 81 percent of the United States population is in an income bracket with flat or declining income over the last decade. That number was 97 percent in Italy, 70 percent in Britain, and 63 percent in France.
Like most things in economics, the slowdown boils down to supply and demand: the ability of the global economy to produce goods and services, and the desire of consumers and businesses to buy them. What’s worrisome is that weakness in global supply and demand seems to be pushing each other in a vicious circle.
It increasingly looks as if something fundamental is broken in the global growth machine — and that the usual menu of policies, like interest rate cuts and modest fiscal stimulus, aren’t up to the task of fixing it (though some well-devised policies could help).
The underlying reality of low growth will haunt whoever wins the White House in November, as well as leaders in Europe and Japan. An entire way of thinking about the future — that children will inevitably live in a much richer country than their parents — is thrown into question the longer this lasts.
The first step to trying to reverse the slowdown is to understand why it’s happening. A good way to do that is to re-examine predictions from smart economists.
In January 2005, as it does every year, the Congressional Budget Office released its forecast for the United States’ budget and economic outlook over the decade to come. If the C.B.O.’s projections had come true, the United States would have had $3.1 trillion more economic output in 2015 than it actually did — 17 percent more. Even if the steep contraction of 2008-2009 hadn’t happened, the shortfall would have been $1.7 trillion.
As a matter of arithmetic, the slowdown in growth has two potential components: people working fewer hours, and less economic output being generated for each hour of labor. Both have contributed to the economy’s underperformance.
In 2000, Robert J. Gordon, a Northwestern University economist, published a paper titled “Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure Up to the Great Inventions of the Past?” It argued that the internet would not have the same transformative impact on how much economic output would emerge from an hour of human labor as 20th-century innovations like electricity, air transport and indoor plumbing did.
It was a distinctly minority view in that apex of technological optimism. “People said: ‘Productivity growth is exploding, Gordon. You’re wrong; we’re in a new age,’ ” Mr. Gordon said. But as productivity growth slowed several years later, “people started to take my point of view more and more seriously.”
He offers the example of the self-check-in computer technology that airlines use. When introduced in the early 2000s, it really did mean greater productivity: Fewer airline clerks were needed for every passenger. But the gain was more a one-time bump than a continuing trend.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of the C.B.O. at the time of the 2005 forecast and now president of the American Action Forum, said technology “just seems to be less special and more comparable to other forms of investments than it had seemed.”
The forecasters thought the average output for an hour of labor would rise 29 percent from 2005 to 2014. Instead it was 15 percent.
But it’s not just that each hour of work is producing less than projected. Fewer people are working fewer hours than seemed likely not long ago.
The unemployment rate is actually lower than the C.B.O. projected it to be a decade ago (it saw it as stable at 5.2 percent; it was 4.9 percent in July). But the unemployment rate counts only those actively seeking a job. There were five million fewer Americans in the labor force — neither working nor looking — in 2015 than projected.
An analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisers last year estimated that about half of the decline in labor force participation since 2009 was caused by aging of the population (which was anticipated in the projection), and about 14 percent from the economic cycle. About a third of the decline was a mysterious “residual”: younger people leaving the work force, perhaps because they saw little opportunity or viewed the potential wages they could earn as inadequate.
Weak productivity and fewer workers are hits to the “supply” side of the economy. But there is evidence that a shortage of demand is a major part of the problem, too.
Think of the economy as a car; if you try to accelerate far beyond the speed it’s capable of, a car won’t go any faster but the engine will overheat. Similarly, if the voluntarily exit of people from the labor force and lower-than-expected gains from technological advances were the entire story behind the growth slowdown, there should be evidence the economy is overheating, resulting in inflation.
That’s not what’s happening. Rather, global central banks are keeping their feet on the economic accelerator, and that is not resulting in any overheating at all.
The distinction is important if there is to be any hope of solving the low-growth problem. If the issue is a shortage of demand, then some more stimulus should help. If it is entirely on the supply side, then government stimulus is not much use, and policy makers should focus on trying to make companies more innovative and coax people back into the work force.
But what if it’s both?
Larry Summers, the Harvard economist and a former top official in the Obama and Clinton administrations, watched as growth stayed low and inflation invisible after the 2008 crisis, despite extraordinary stimulus from central banks. Even before the crisis, economic growth had been relatively tepid despite a housing bubble, war spending and low interest rates.
In November 2013, he combined those observations into a much-discussed speech at an I.M.F. conference arguing that the global economy had, just maybe, settled into a state of “secular stagnation” in which there was insufficient demand, and resulting slow growth, low inflation and low interest rates.
While the theory is anything but settled, the case has become stronger in the last three years.
But it may not be as simple as supply versus demand. Perhaps people have dropped out of the labor force because their skills and connections have atrophied. Perhaps the productivity slump is caused in part by businesses not making capital investments because they don’t think there will be demand for their products.
Mr. Summers, in an interview, frames it as an inversion of “Say’s Law,” the notion that supply creates its own demand: that economywide, people doing the work to create goods and services results in their having the income to then buy those goods and services.
In this case, rather, as he has often put it: “Lack of demand creates lack of supply.”
His proposed solution is that the government sharply expand investment in infrastructure, which might provide a jolt of higher demand, which in turn could help the picture on supply — helping workers who build roads and bridges become reattached to the work force, for example. As it happens, increasing infrastructure spending is among the few economic policies advocated by both Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump.
Economic history is full of unpredictable fits and starts. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, the internet, a defining feature of his presidency, was rarely mentioned, and Japan seemed to be emerging as the pre-eminent economic rival of the United States.
In other words, there’s a lot we don’t know about the economic future. What we do know is that if something doesn’t change from the recent trend, the 21st century will be a gloomy one.
As the World Grows More Slowly
To the Editor:
In “A Low-Growth World: One Key to Persistent Economic Anxiety” (The Upshot, front page, Aug. 7), Neil Irwin writes: “The first step to trying to reverse the slowdown is to understand why it’s happening. A good way to do that is to re-examine predictions from smart economists.”
According to the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, the end of growth is both inevitable and desirable. In “Principles of Political Economy,” he wrote that “the increase of wealth is not boundless.” He added: “A stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on.”
Without continued economic growth, Americans would have to buy a less expensive house. But if they work less and relax more with friends and neighbors, could they actually be happier? The Bernie Sanders campaign suggests that rebuilding fairness could be more important than continual economic growth.
Maybe we are striving for the wrong end.
The Upshot reports on some theories by prominent economists on why “economic growth in advanced nations has been weaker for longer than it has been in the lifetime of most people on earth.”
One thought from some of us in the for-profit sector is the unprecedented explosion of regulations that have forced businesses large and small to devote a lot of resources to compliance efforts. The inputs — direct labor, meetings, reviews and paperwork — are enormous. But the outcomes are essentially zero.
But perhaps the biggest issue involves defining the original problem. Why confine the study to “advanced nations”? Looking at population-weighted growth, the economic activity of the world is right on track. China and India — representing over a third of the world’s population — have seen growth rates in the high single digits. Their populations are catching up to the “advanced nations” standards. That is the real story.
CHARLES H. GESSNER
The explanation for America’s slow growth is quite simple. In a capitalistic system, maximizing profits is the overarching concern. Since the population is increasing, as is automation, corporations maximize profits by lowering wages as much as possible and getting by with as few workers as possible. Workers have become fungible.
Wage stagnation is a major problem in the United States; hence, disposable income has decreased for most folks in America. That means that demand for goods and services has decreased, resulting in the need for even fewer workers.
The Fed has provided almost free money hoping that corporations would borrow at low rates and expand, invest in new plants and equipment, and hire new workers. Instead, corporations have used borrowed money to buy back stock, to buy other companies, and to pay executives huge bonuses and stock options.
Only a relatively low number of people at the top have benefited. Thus, we have fewer people at the top supporting an increasing number of poor people at the bottom. This is unsustainable.
These forces have led to the rise of Donald Trump and his followers. The end game won’t be pretty. Welcome to third-world America.
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