He starts with the puzzle that employment and measured productivity growth have both been weak. If we are replacing less-skilled workers with machines and more-skilled workers, then why isn’t labor productivity going up?
This leads Summers to suggest that labor productivity is going up, but this is not being captured in the productivity statistics.
I am struck that there is likely what may well be an increase in unmeasured quality improvement. To take the first example that comes to mind and I’ll do an experiment with this group. I’ve done this experiment with other groups – which would you rather have for you and your family, 1980 healthcare at 1980 prices or 2015 healthcare at 2015 prices? How many people would prefer 1980 healthcare at 1980 prices? How many people would prefer 2015 healthcare at 2015 prices?
There are a fair number of abstainers but your answer was pretty clear. What does that mean? That means that healthcare inflation was negative from 1980. That is very different than the 6% or so that is reflected in the
national income accounts.
Again, thanks to Mark Thoma and Tyler Cowen for pointers.
1. Since people do not face health care costs directly (with their own money), perhaps this is not a fair question.
2. What about Hansonian medicine?
3. And yet, I agree with Summers on this. I certainly would prefer today’s health care at today’s prices. One of the first points I made in Crisis of Abundance is that we could afford to give everyone in the U.S. the health care of 1970. The main reason we are spending more on health care today is that it is more capital intensive and more specialist intensive. (Incidentally, I predicted when Crisis of Abundance was published in 2006 that its relevance would last a decade. I am now confident that it will be relevant even longer.)
4. Ask Summers’ question about higher education. Would you prefer a 1980 college education at 1980 tuition or 2015 college education at 2015 tuition? Personally, I see no reason to choose the latter.
In some sense, it does not matter whether Summers’ point is valid. Productivity has been been going up quite well in manufacturing and in some other sectors (e.g., Walmart). However, labor is shifting to the New Commanding Heights sectors. Maybe productivity is rising in those sectors and inflation is over-stated, or maybe they suffer from Baumol’s cost disease and there is no overstatement of inflation. Either way, once we ditch the GDP factory and disaggregate the economy, the productivity puzzle goes away.
Summers points out that if you take the view that inflation is lower than what is measured, then real interest rates are higher than typically measured. This is not good for his previous views on secular stagnation, as he points out:
to be fair [it]has an implication for views that I and others have expressed about secular stagnation, at one level you can say, well real interest rates really aren’t that low once you subtract inflation. Once you subtract properly measured inflation, there has been less of a decline in real interest rates than we thought.
And what if we think about a disaggregated economy, with deflation in some sectors and inflation in others? Does it even make sense to talk about “the” real interest rate? Obviously for a business, it is the rate of price change in your sector that matters. For a household, you care about some average rate of price change, but which average? My girls are done with schooling, so do I care about college tuition changes? Does it matter to me whether health care inflation is overstated or not, given that my only option is to purchase health insurance at current prices?
“Secular stagnation” is anachronistic, AS-AD, GDP-factory thinking. We are in a specialized economy. Eventually, otehr economists are going to come around to PSST.