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Labor productivity during the Great Depression

  • Michael D. Bordo
  • Charles L. Evans

In a recent paper, Bemanke and Parkinson (1991) studied interwar U.S. manufacturing data with the objective of assessing competing theories of the business cycle. An important finding was that short-run increasing returns to Labor (SRIRL), or procyclical labor productivity, was at least as strong during the Great Depression as in the postwar period. The authors conclude that this information casts further doubt on the real business cycle explanation of economic fluctuations. The purpose of this note is to point out that, within the data set analyzed by Bemanke and Parkinson (20% of the manufacturing sector), labor productivity during the Great Depression (1928:III to 1933:1) was procyclical in some industries and countercyclical in others. Furthermore, our measure of labor productivity for the entire manufacturing sector during this period was countercyclical. We conclude that the evidence is not favorable toward the hypothesis that large, negative aggregate demand shocks pushed the 1929-33 economy down a static, neoclassical production function. Another possibility is that firms which typically hoarded labor during recessions chose not to do so during the 1929-33 period.

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Paper provided by Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago in its series Working Paper Series, Macroeconomic Issues with number 93-10.

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Date of creation: 1993
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:fip:fedhma:93-10
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  1. Prescott, Edward C., 1986. "Theory ahead of business-cycle measurement," Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, Elsevier, vol. 25(1), pages 11-44, January.
  2. Caballero, R.J. & Lyons, R.K., 1991. "External Effects in U.S. Procyclical Productivity," Papers 91-19, Columbia - Graduate School of Business.
  3. Hansen, Lars Peter, 1982. "Large Sample Properties of Generalized Method of Moments Estimators," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 50(4), pages 1029-54, July.
  4. Ben S. Bernanke & James Powell, 1986. "The Cyclical Behavior of Industrial Labor Markets: A Comparison of the Prewar and Postwar Eras," NBER Chapters, in: The American Business Cycle: Continuity and Change, pages 583-638 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Robert G. King, 1991. "Money and business cycles," Proceedings, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, issue Nov.
  6. Burnside, Craig & Eichenbaum, Martin & Rebelo, Sergio, 1993. "Labor Hoarding and the Business Cycle," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 101(2), pages 245-73, April.
  7. Newey, Whitney K & West, Kenneth D, 1987. "A Simple, Positive Semi-definite, Heteroskedasticity and Autocorrelation Consistent Covariance Matrix," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 55(3), pages 703-08, May.
  8. Robert A. Margo, 1992. "Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s," NBER Working Papers 4174, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. R. Anton Braun & Charles L. Evans, 1996. "Seasonal Solow residuals and Christmas: a case for labor hoarding and increasing returns," Working Papers 575, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
  10. Bernanke, Ben S & Parkinson, Martin L, 1991. "Procyclical Labor Productivity and Competing Theories of the Business Cycle: Some Evidence from Interwar U.S. Manufacturing Industries," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 99(3), pages 439-59, June.
  11. Gary Hansen, 2010. "Indivisible Labor and the Business Cycle," Levine's Working Paper Archive 233, David K. Levine.
  12. Lawrence J. Christiano & Martin Eichenbaum, 1990. "Current real business cycle theories and aggregate labor market fluctuations," Working Paper Series, Macroeconomic Issues 90, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
  13. Hodrick, Robert J & Prescott, Edward C, 1997. "Postwar U.S. Business Cycles: An Empirical Investigation," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 29(1), pages 1-16, February.
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