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Interpreting the "One Big Wave" in U.S. Long-Term Productivity Growth

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  • Robert J. Gordon

Abstract

This paper assesses the standard data on output, labor input, and capital input, which imply one big wave' in multi-factor productivity (MFP) growth for the United States since 1870. The wave-like pattern starts with slow MFP growth in the late 19th century, then an acceleration peaking in 1928-50, and then a deceleration to a slow rate after 1972 that returns to the poor performance of 1870-1891. A counterpart of the standard data is a mysterious doubling in the ratio of output to capital input when the postwar era is compared with 1870-1929. Three types of measurement adjustments are applied to the standard input data. Following the lead of Denison and Jorgenson-Griliches, adjustments for the changing composition (or quality') of labor and capital, currently published by the BLS back to 1948, are estimated for 1870-1948. These composition adjustments take into account the shifting mix of the labor force along the dimensions of education and age-sex composition, and of the capital stock between equipment and structures. Further adjustments are made to capital input data to allow retirement to vary with gross investment rather than to follow a fixed pattern depending only on age, and to add types of capital owned by the government that are particularly productive in the private sector. A new MFP series taking account of all these adjustments grows more slowly throughout, and the big wave' phenomenon is both flatter and extends back further in time to 1891. However, there is no solution to the post-1972 productivity slowdown, and in the new data MFP growth during 1972-96 proceeds at a pathetic 0.1 percent per year. A byproduct of the measurement adjustments is to solve completely the previous puzzle of the jump in the output-capital ratio; in the new data this ratio is actually lower in 1996 than in 1870. The primary substantive explanation for the big wave lies in the timing of inventions. MFP growth during the big wave' period benefited from the diffusion of four great clusters of inventions that dwarf today's information technology revolution in their combined importance. A complementary hypothesis is that the partial closing of American labor markets to immigration and of American goods markets to imports during the big wave period gave an artificial and temporary boost to real wages which fed back into boosting productivity growth, followed by a reopening that contributed to the post-1972 productivity slowdown.

Suggested Citation

  • Robert J. Gordon, 2000. "Interpreting the "One Big Wave" in U.S. Long-Term Productivity Growth," NBER Working Papers 7752, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7752
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Su, Dan & Yao, Yang, 2016. "Manufacturing as the Key Engine of Economic Growth for Middle-Income Economies," ADBI Working Papers 573, Asian Development Bank Institute.
    2. Hung, Juann & Salomon, Matt & Sowerby, Stacia, 2004. "International trade and US productivity," Research in International Business and Finance, Elsevier, vol. 18(1), pages 1-25, April.
    3. Jane Sneddon Little & Robert K. Triest, 2002. "The impact of demographic change on U. S. labor markets," New England Economic Review, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, issue Q 1, pages 47-68.
    4. Lawrence F. Katz & Claudia Goldin, 2001. "The Legacy of U.S. Educational Leadership: Notes on Distribution and Economic Growth in the 20th Century," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(2), pages 18-23, May.
    5. Malley, Jim & Woitek, Ulrich, 2010. "Technology shocks and aggregate fluctuations in an estimated hybrid RBC model," Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, Elsevier, vol. 34(7), pages 1214-1232, July.
    6. Robert J. Gordon, 2000. "Does the "New Economy" Measure Up to the Great Inventions of the Past?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 14(4), pages 49-74, Fall.
    7. Sandrine Michel & Delphine Vallade, 2010. "Financement des dépenses sociales : les apports d'une approche de long terme," Post-Print hal-01671551, HAL.
    8. Eliasson, Gunnar & Johansson, Dan & Taymaz, Erol, 2004. "Simulating the New Economy," Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, Elsevier, vol. 15(3), pages 289-314, September.
    9. Bester, Helmut & Milliou, Chrysovalantou & Petrakis, Emmanuel, 2012. "Wage bargaining, productivity growth and long-run industry structure," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 19(6), pages 923-930.
    10. Lindmark, Magnus, 2002. "An EKC-pattern in historical perspective: carbon dioxide emissions, technology, fuel prices and growth in Sweden 1870-1997," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 42(1-2), pages 333-347, August.
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    12. Clinton Lively, 2001. "Merrill Lynch & Co.: process risk management program," Conference Series ; [Proceedings], Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
    13. Alvarez-Pelaez, Maria J. & Diaz, Antonia, 2005. "Minimum consumption and transitional dynamics in wealth distribution," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 52(3), pages 633-667, April.
    14. John Y. Campbell & Robert J. Shiller, 2001. "Valuation Ratios and the Long-Run Stock Market Outlook: An Update," NBER Working Papers 8221, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    15. Field, Alexander J., 2007. "The equipment hypothesis and US economic growth," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 44(1), pages 43-58, January.
    16. Michael J. Boskin & Lawrence J. Lau, 2000. "Generalized Solow-Neutral Technical Progress and Postwar Economic Growth," NBER Working Papers 8023, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    17. Paul A. David, 2005. "Productivity growth prospects and the new economy in historical perspective," Economic History 0502005, EconWPA.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • O40 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity - - - General
    • O47 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity - - - Empirical Studies of Economic Growth; Aggregate Productivity; Cross-Country Output Convergence

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