Did the Thirty Glorious Years Actually Exist?

Okay, I am going for a flashy title here. I should have asked whether the Thirty Glorious were as glorious as they are meant to be. This is a question that matters in debates about both inequality and the often-bemoaned growth slowdown.

In the past (say before 1950), labor force participation was quite low (relative to today) by virtue of large family sizes and most married women not working. However, when they were at-home, these married women produced something. That something was simply not included in our national accounts. When they entered the labor force, they produced less of that something. However, since it had never been measured, we never subtracted that something from the actual output generated from their increased participation.

Even before the 1950s, this mattered considerably as growth tended to be heavily underestimated (by 0.3 percentage points from 1870 to 1890, overestimated by 0.38 points from 1890 to 1910 and by 0.06 percentage points from 1910 to 1930).This was at a time when variations between the household economy and the market economy were small. Imagine the importance of overestimates since the 1950s! In a short comment reply to Emily Skarbek last year, I pointed out that adjusting for the size of the household economy meant that 1/7th of Canada’s economic growth from 1960 to 1997 (see image below and this was before one additional surge of labor participation resulting from daycare and unemployment policy reforms).

SEcularStagnation2

Recently, I found an old book in my library. It is Kenneth Boulding’s Structure of a Modern EconomyIn it, he makes this exact same argument. Basically, actual output today is overestimated relative to output in the past. And there are many, many, many other articles on this. In all cases, the rate of growth is heavily reduced. In a way, that means that the Thirty Glorious are less glorious (which makes the growth stagnation argument seem more defensible).

And you know what? This is consistent with attempts to correct inequality measures. Most of the attempts made to correct inequality for age, number of workers per household, the size of household and prices, they generally increase very modestly the income growth of the bottom centiles and decrease appreciably the actual level of growth of incomes at the top. While these corrections reduce the level of inequality (and the growth thereof), they also reduce the growth rate of incomes.

Is it possible that the correction to make inequality measures more comparable over time are allow us to see the point about overestimating growth since the 1950s? It means that the Thirty Glorious aren’t that glorious (at the very least, they’re overestimated). It also means that someone who could follow some of the proposed corrections to national income accounts (generally, the best source for this is the Review of Income and Wealth) for every year since 1929 (starting date of the US national accounts which could be extended by using Kuznets’s national income measures from 1913 to 1929) could propose the “actual output” of the country and see how glorious the 1945-1975 period was. That is the work of economic historians to do!

Information doesn’t matter

The classical economists gave us three basic factors of production: Land (i.e. nature-given resources), Labor (i.e. human effort), and Capital (i.e. tools). Naturally this involves lumping together a lot of heterogeneous things. Capital includes a rock you might use to smash an assailant over the head as well as a particle accelerator. But prices do a brilliant thing: they provide information about the relative scarcity of goods and compress that information into a single dimension

This allows us to aggregate! It means that we can talk about how much capital per capita is available in a region (or better yet, provide a distribution of workers’ access to capital… a project I’m not sure if anyone’s done) and the like.

This whole intellectual project is necessary if we want to talk about the nature and causes of a particular economy’s well being. But the original factors have become less useful as the nature of economic activity has changed over time.

It gradually became clear that the concept of labor was too fuzzy: how do we compare the labor of a doctor with that of a stevedore with that of a professional wrestler? We could try to use prices, but for a variety of reasons that just won’t work very well. Household production and leisure don’t have market prices, market frictions are particularly pronounced, information asymmetries abound and are entangled with principal-agent problems (you don’t have to watch a wrench to ensure that it doesn’t slack off, but your administrator may very well cease to administrate while browsing Facebook).

Economists have dealt with the issue with the idea of human capital. In addition to physical tools, people also have mental tools (skills). This idea leads into the notion of social capital (people invest in relationships), and can be extended in any number of directions. It’s a wonderful lens through which to view the world because it lets us see the nature of what we do.

But it’s not the right way to think about the factors of production. Not because it’s difficult to measure human capital (I’m not convinced it’s really possible to measure much of anything of importance in economics… even though I keep trying to). The problem is that it doesn’t get us down to the core, atomic thing that we’re really interested in.

Boulding tells us [emphasis mine]:

It is much more accurate to identify the factors of production as know-how (that is genetic information structure), energy, and materials, for, as we have seen, all processes of production involve the direction of energy by some know-how structure toward the selection, transportation, and transformation of materials into the product.

And I think he’s on to something here. The basic stuff of our economy is information applied to objects (even information has to be physically embodied in writing, magnetic manipulation of hard drives, or the shape of our neural connections), which requires energy.

But we’ve got the information necessary to do far more than we actually do. What is it that stands between the vast amounts of knowledge at our command being applied to our enormous stocks of physical resources using our still plentiful and cheap energy? Why is there so much slack in our economic systems?

It could simply be transaction costs, but I think we can go deeper. Boulding’s factors give a more refined view of both labor and capital, but he’s still missing the fundamental kernel of labor. It’s not our know-how that matters–we all know we’re supposed to save for retirement and yet we don’t. It’s not that we don’t have enough energy. What’s missing is an appreciation of attention.

Attention is at the root of alertness which Kirzner tells us is the prime mover that sets in motion economizing behavior. Attention is what is necessary to learn. Most importantly, it is what is necessary to remember and apply what we learn. And it’s universal. Laborers have it and so will our future robot overlords. It’s easily as basic as energy and materials. The question then is how to tie it into the notion of know-how (the psychology of learning) and social sciences more generally.