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If you listen to any mainstream economist you’ll learn that “productivity growth is good for American workers.” Productivity goes up, and with it comes rising prosperity for all. As Adam Davidson, the popular economics guru of Planet Money and the New York Times Magazine, wrote recently, “Productivity, in and of itself, is a remarkably good thing. Only through productivity growth can the average quality of human life improve.”
American workers are astonishingly productive. In fact, American labor productivity has grown every single year for the past three decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. US productivity zoomed up after the most recent financial crash, rising sharply from 2008 to 2009, and again from 2009 to 2010. By contrast, productivity actually shrank during this period in such industrialized nations as Japan, Germany, and the UK. Sure, a share of these productivity gains are due to American firms outsourcing and offshoring jobs to cheap labor markets, but the bulk of it comes from American workers adapting to new, more efficient technologies and working harder and faster than ever before—and for less pay.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle tend to lean on American productivity as the solution to our current economic woes, a phenomenon in force during the last presidential campaign. “I know we can out-compete any other nation on Earth,” Barack Obama told the nation in a weekly address in January 2011. “We just have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to unlock the productivity of American workers, unleash the ingenuity of American businesses, and harness the dynamism of America’s economy.” Mitt Romney, too, argued that “[a] productivity and growth strategy has immediate and very personal benefits,” and that “economic vitality, innovation, and productivity are inexorably linked with the happiness and well-being of our citizens.” The idea being that if we sprinkle a little stimulus money here or some deregulation there, depending upon your orientation, American workers will somehow, through sheer grit and generous doses of Red Bull, be able to dig deep and work even faster, even harder, and even more efficiently than before—even though they’ve been doing so for decades—thereby jump-starting our economic engine. After that, the sky’s the limit.
So why have corporate leaders in this country continued to close manufacturing plants by the thousands and move the jobs overseas?
Text by Esther Kaplan and photograph by David M. Barreda.
To read Esther Kaplan’s complete article Losing Sparta with photography by David M. Barreda in VQR Online, click here.