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Procyclical Labor Productivity and Competing Theories of the Business Cycle: Some Evidence from Interwar U.S. Manufacturing Industries

  • Ben S. Bernanke
  • Martin L. Parkinson

Each of the main explanations of procyclical labor productivity, or short-run increasing returns to labor (SRIRL), is closely associated with a competing theory of the business cycle: Real business cycle theorists attribute SRIRL to procyclical technological shocks, proponents of recent theories based on non-convexities believe that SRIRL reflects true increasing returns, and Keynesians favor a labor hoarding explanation. Thus evidence on the sources of SRIRL may be important for discriminating among alternative theories of the cycle. This paper studies the sources of SRIRL in a sample of ten interwar U.S. manufacturing industries. Our main findings are that SRIRL was common in the interwar period and that the pattern of SRIRL across industries was similar to that observed in the postwar period. we argue that, under the presumption that the Depression was not caused by large negative technological shocks, these findings are inconsistent with the technological shocks hypothesis and provide evidence against real business cycle theory in general. we propose tests for discriminating between the increasing returns and labor hoarding explanations but find that our conclusions differ by industry.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 3503.

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Date of creation: Oct 1990
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Publication status: published as Journal of Political Economy 99(3): 439-59, June 1991.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:3503
Note: EFG
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  1. Daniel Creamer & Sergei Dobrovolsky & Israel Borenstein, 1960. "Capital in Manufacturing and Mining: Its Formation and Financing," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number crea60-1, June.
  2. Robert S. Chirinko, 1993. "Non-convexities, labor hoarding, technology shocks, and procyclical productivity: a structural econometric approach," Research Working Paper 93-08, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
  3. Kevin M. Murphy & Andrei Shleifer & Robert W. Vishny, 1989. "Building Blocks of Market Clearing Business Cycle Models," NBER Chapters, in: NBER Macroeconomics Annual 1989, Volume 4, pages 247-302 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Walter Y. Oi, 1962. "Labor as a Quasi-Fixed Factor," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 70, pages 538.
  5. Fay, Jon A & Medoff, James L, 1985. "Labor and Output over the Business Cycle: Some Direct Evidence," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(4), pages 638-55, September.
  6. Wooldridge, Jeffrey M., 1989. "A computationally simple heteroskedasticity and serial correlation robust standard error for the linear regression model," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 31(3), pages 239-243, December.
  7. Gary S. Becker, 1962. "Investment in Human Capital: A Theoretical Analysis," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 70, pages 9.
  8. Christopher A. Sims, 1974. "Output and Labor Input in Manufacturing," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 5(3), pages 695-736.
  9. Ricardo J. Caballero & Richard K. Lyons, 1989. "The Role of External Economies in U.S. Manufacturing," NBER Working Papers 3033, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Hunter, Helen Manning, 1982. "The Role of Business Liquidity During the Great Depression and Afterwards: Differences Between Large and Small Firms," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 42(04), pages 883-902, December.
  11. King, Robert G & Plosser, Charles I, 1984. "Money, Credit, and Prices in a Real Business Cycle," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(3), pages 363-80, June.
  12. Julio J. Rotemberg & Lawrence H. Summers, 1988. "Labor Hoarding, Inflexible Prices, and Procyclical Productivity," NBER Working Papers 2591, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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