Productivity Is the Key to Economic Growth

Mick Mulvaney says the haters don’t know what they’re talking about:

In his remarks Tuesday, Mulvaney mentioned that the economy had often grown in the past at rates of 3 percent and called people’s objections to the Trump administration’s expectation of growth rates that high “absurd.”

“It used to be normal. Ten years ago, it was normal. In fact, it’s been normal for the history of the country,” said Mulvaney.

Mulvaney is sort of right about this. But there’s more to it. The basic formula for economic growth is simple: Economic growth = Population growth + Productivity growth. Population growth has been slowing down for decades, and Mulvaney isn’t going to change that. We know exactly what the population of the country is going to be over the next few years.

So that leaves productivity growth, which the BLS estimates here. Here’s what all three factors have looked like since 1960:

In order to achieve 3 percent economic growth, we need productivity growth of about 2.3 percent. This is decidedly not normal for the history of the country—not in the past 50 years, anyway. With the brief exception of the unsustainable housing bubble era, we haven’t hit that since the end of 60s.

Productivity growth is a real problem, and it’s something of a mystery why it’s been so low lately. But it’s a mystery to Mulvaney too, and it’s certainly not due to punitive tax rates or heavy-handed regulations. Despite this, Mulvaney is suggesting that Trump can more than double the productivity growth rate of the past ten years, reaching a target we haven’t hit in a normal, healthy economy for the past half century. There’s simply no reason to believe this, and Mulvaney hasn’t even tried to explain how he thinks Trump can accomplish it. Not even hand waving. He’s literally said nothing about productivity growth at all.

Until he does, nobody should believe his growth estimates. It all comes down to productivity, and that’s what Mulvaney needs to talk about.