By “the productivity slowdown,” economists have generally meant the slowdown in GDP per capita growth rates that occurred after 1973 (e.g., see here). Note that the word “slowdown” is a bit misleading: it doesn’t mean that we’re getting poorer, just that we’re not getting richer as fast. Still, it’s an unwelcome change, and calls for an explanation. There was then a productivity acceleration in the 1990s, but not a return to the “halcyon days” of the 1950s and 1960s.That productivity slowdown can’t have been caused by closed borders, because the borders were already closed in the 1950s and 1960s.
However, Alexander Field’s A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and US Economic Growth casts a different light on things. Field’s most surprising finding is that the 1930s actually experienced the highest rates of productivity growth in the 20th century. Manufacturing, whose productivity rose at its highest-ever pace in the 1920s, slowed down a bit in the 1930s, but fast productivity growth spread to other sectors. The fast productivity growth of the 1950s and 1960s was actually a decline relative to the 1930s, and the post-1973 productivity slowdown a further decline.
I am not always convinced by Field’s analysis. He often seems insufficiently suspicious of aggregate numbers that have to be calculated on the basis of market prices which change over time and can’t easily be adjusted for quality changes. Still, Field altered my view of 20th-century economic history, and my tentative best guess would now be to defer to him. Let me now tentatively and speculatively extend his analysis a bit. The post-1973 productivity slowdown that attracted so much attention was something of an accident, in the sense that the oil price spike and macroeconomic conditions created a kind of “joint” in the path of GDP, but the lasting productivity slowdown had to do with long-run trends and not really with anything that happened in 1973 per se. In the “halcyon days” of the 1950s and 1960s, two non-technological factors masked an ongoing slowdown in the pace of technological innovation. First, demographically, the US population was quite young, and it’s characteristic of young people to learn and become more productive at a faster rate than their elders. Second, competent monetary policy and much reduced political uncertainty relative to the 1930s contributed to investment and capital formation, enabling the macroeconomy to exploit much more fully the space of technological possibilities that had already been opened up by the innovative 1920s and 1930s. Productivity growth slowed down in the 1970s because the exploitation of the technological backlog from the Depression and war years, as well as the demographic boost from the youthful post-WWII population, had played themselves out. Continue reading Did Border Closure Cause the Productivity Slowdown?