For the long-run future of the U.S. economy, and indeed, the global economy, no subject is more important than the likely course of productivity growth. The McKinsey Quarterly celebrated 50 years of publication with its September 2014 issue. That issue includes a short interview with Robert Solow, with Martin Neil Baily and Frank Comes as interlocutors.
Solow, of course, won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (commonly known as the \”Nobel Prize in economics\”) in 1987 \”for his contributions to the theory of economic growth.\” In a nutshell, Solow demonstrated that the accumulation of capital and of labor was not a sufficient explanation for the process of economic growth, and that a broad element of \”technological progress\” also needed to play a role. If that concept seems obvious now, it is Solow\’s pathbreaking work from more than half-century ago that helped to make it obvious. Solow is also one of the most gifted expositors in economics. Here are a few of his comments from the interview:
Solow on economic forecasting:
\”As an ordinary macroeconomist, I have avoided forecasting as if it were a foul disease—as indeed it is. It’s very damaging to the tissues. So I don’t think one can say too much.\”
Solow on capital intensity in the service sector:
\”I don’t think we even have a very clear idea about the relative capital intensity within the service sector or between the service sector and goods-producing sector. I remember I was once writing something in which I was describing the service sector as being of relatively low capital intensity. And then I stopped and remembered that the following day I had an appointment with my dentist and that my dentist’s office was as capital intensive a 500 square feet as I had ever seen in my life.\”
Solow on the importance of global competition to productivity growth:
What came as something completely new to me was that if you looked at the same industry across countries, there were almost always dramatic differences in either labor productivity or total factor productivity. To my surprise, it turned out that most of the time, certainly more often than not, the difference in productivity—in the auto industry or the steel industry or the residential-construction industry in the US and in countries in Europe—was not only substantial but couldn’t seriously be explained by differences in access to technology.
We also found that the productivity differences could not be traced to differences in access to investment capital. The French automobile industry, much to my surprise, turned out to be more capital intensive than the American automobile industry. So it was not that either. The MGI [McKinsey Global Institute] studies instead traced these differences in productivity to organizational differences, to the way tasks were allocated within a firm or a division—essentially, to failures in managerial decisions. I was, of course, instantly suspicious of this. I figured to myself, “What do you expect a bunch of management consultants to find but differences in management capacities? That’s in their genes. That’s not in my genes.” But MGI made a very convincing case for this. And I came to believe that it was right. …
[T]here was another surprise, for which there was partly anecdotal, partly statistical evidence. If you asked why there were differences that could be erased or diminished by better management, the answer was that it took the spur of sharp competition to induce managers to do what they were in principle capable of doing. So the idea that everybody is everywhere and always maximizing profits turned out to be not quite right.
MGI made a very good case that what was lacking in these trailing industries in other countries—or in the US, in cases where the US trailed—was enough exposure to competition from whoever in the world had the best practice. And this, of course, can apply within a country. We know that in any industry, there is a whole distribution of productivity levels across firms and even, sometimes, across establishments within a firm. And much of that must be due to the absence of any spur to do more. So an interesting conclusion to me was that international trade serves a purpose beyond exploiting comparative advantage. It exposes high-level managers in various countries to a little fright. And fright turns out to be an important motivation. … [I]t goes beyond that, even. Competing as part of the world economy is an important way of gaining access to scale. If you’re a Belgian company or even a French company, it may be that best practice requires a scale of production larger than the French domestic market will provide for French producers. So it’s important for such companies to have access to the international market.