Today’s “Productivity and Costs” data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics contain what looks like good news. Productivity increased at a 9.5 percent annual rate during the third quarter of 2009, the largest gain since 2003.
The Associated Press called it “sizzling.” The New York Times said we “surged.”
It’s good news and I’m happy about it. I especially like the 4.0 percent increase in outputs, led by a 12.4 percent increase in the manufacturing of durable goods. It almost starts to look like green shoots in a gray economy.
But keep the cork in the bottles. The hours worked last quarter dropped by fully 5.0 percent. The productivity gain came from doing more work in fewer hours. In the durable goods sector, the hours worked dropped a full 7.2 percent. The increase in productivity is fundamentally about people working harder.
And people aren’t getting paid for their hard work. Real hourly compensation rose only 0.2 percent last quarter. So if somebody is pocketing the gains from 9.5 percent increase in productivity, it isn’t the people working on the lines. Yes, they’re happy to have jobs. Yes, it’s nice to see any gain at all after a decade of decline in wages and income. But no, we don’t want to recreate the bubble that popped. We need to make sure these gains are widely shared and that the people doing the work reap their fair share of the benefit.