Productivity, and politicians who no longer care

I was reminded again the other day both how (absolutely) poor even advanced countries were not that long ago, but also how (relatively) rich New Zealand was. I was reading a fascinating book on Ireland’s (rather shameful) history in World War Two and stumbled across a snippet suggesting that “there were nearly 170000 licensed radio sets in Ireland on outbreak of war”, in a country of almost three million people. On digging around a bit, I found that in New Zealand, then with 1.6 million people, we’d had 317509 licensed radio sets in 1939 (then, apparently, third highest in the world per capita). The licence fees in the two countries appear to have been very similar.

The standard compilation of historical estimates of per capita GDP – that of Angus Maddison – is consistent with my radio anecdote. In 1938/39 GDP per capita in New Zealand was more than twice that in Ireland, with New Zealand in the very top grouping (New Zealand, UK, USA, and Switzerland).

How times change. As even Irish official statisticians acknowledge the idiosyncracies of Ireland’s corporate tax system substantially distort Irish national accounts statistics, but doing whatever adjustments are possible (eg the Irish modified GNI measure) or looking at consumption statistics it is clear that these days Ireland is producing considerably better material living standards than New Zealand is. In terms of standard productivity measures – the OECD’s real GDP per hour worked data – they probably went past us in the mid-1980s.

The OECD productivity data go back as far as 1970. By then, we’d already had a couple of decades of relative decline – even though for most countries, including New Zealand, the 1950s and 1960s had seen really impressive absolute growth rates. Of the 23 countries for which the OECD has 1970 data – not all of them (including New Zealand) then part of the OECD – real GDP per hour worked here was just over 95 per cent of that in the median OECD country. We were a touch behind France and a touch of the UK. These days – pre-Covid – real GDP per hour worked is about two-thirds of the median for that same group of 23 countries.

By far our worst decade since these data start was the 1970s. In that decade we had, by some considerable margin, the slowest growth in labour productivity of any of the countries the OECD has data far. Unfortunately, since then there has never been any sustained period when we have regained ground relative to the OECD pack, and if anything the gaps have widened further.

Relative optimists might look at the New Zealand experience this century and observe that there hasn’t been any material slippage relative to the leading bunch of OECD countries.

But that shouldn’t really be any consolation when:

  • the absolute rate of productivity growth has been so poor (our average annual rate of productivity growth for the nine years to 2019 has been a bit worse than our dismal performance in the 1970s –  see above),
  • we’ve managed no catch-up relative to the leading bunch, even though their productivity rates  –  problems at the frontier –  have also been disappointing to say the least, and
  • our performance relative to other countries that aspired to catch-up has also been dreadful.

I first got systematically interested in New Zealand’s woeful record in a stint at Treasury from 2008 to 2010, in the course of which I was heavily involved with the then-government’s 2025 Taskforce – the one supposedly about catching up (in terms of material living standards) with Australia by 2025. I wrote most of the Taskforce’s first report in late 2009 and in doing so I noticed, and reported that, of the former Communist countries of eastern Europe, Slovenia had then just passed us in terms of real per capita GDP, that Slovakia had real GDP per hour worked approaching that of New Zealand.

There have been some data revisions since then, but if we look at current estimates of real GDP per hour worked, in PPP terms, for 2007, we find that Slovenia was indeed about 5 per cent ahead of New Zealand, although the gap to Slovakia was a bit larger (10 per cent) than those earlier estimates suggested. There are eight former Communist countries in the OECD. In 2007, real GDP per hour worked in New Zealand was already only 16 per cent ahead of the median of those countries, that margin have narrowed markedly in the previous decade. Perhaps that earlier catch-up wasn’t too surprising or alarming – if you stop hobbling your economy and get rid of the state-dominated Communist system, you are almost certain to bounceback to some extent.

But where are things now?

Real GDP per hour worked, 2019, $US PPP
Slovenia 45.2
New Zealand42.2
Czech Republic42.0

Last year we were really just middle of the pack among these countries, and in another couple of years – on policies, practices, whatever in New Zealand and other countries – you’d have to assume we’ll be struggling to stay ahead of Hungary and Latvia for long. In terms of growth rates over the last decade, Hungary was the laggard of the former Communist countries – still grew faster than New Zealand, but not by that much – but it should be slim consolation if we just manage to stay ahead of Hungary.

Not once previously in the history of modern New Zealand has any of these countries previously had productivity or income per head performances to match those of New Zealand. They still lag quite a way behind the north-west European leaders – although the gap is closing. The standout isn’t them catching up, but us failing.

It isn’t just those former eastern bloc countries. At the turn of the century, New Zealand could console itself that if Korea was growing rapidly, real GDP per hour worked was still not much more than half that of New Zealand. On recent rates of growth, they will move ahead of us in another year or two. Or Turkey – with a history of unstable undemocracy, macroeconomic instability and so on. The old Ottoman Empire was the 19th century’s “sick man of Europe”. In 2017, for the first time in modern history, real GDP per hour worked in Turkey moved ahead of that in New Zealand.

But it isn’t all bad news I guess. If you really want to find advanced countries that have done less well than New Zealand – poorer/less productive and with a slower productivity growth rate – I can offer you Greece and Portugal. But falling on those sorts of comparisons is really head-in-the-sand stuff.

But….in the midst of an election campaign, occurring in probably toughest economic times for an election campaign since 1990, is there any sign that (a) any political parties, or leading figures in parties, care about this dire long-term economic performance, or (b) have either any serious ideas, or a commitment to getting and adopting serious ideas, about making a difference? If there are any such signs I must have missed them.

Presumably, if pushed and at some level, the people grappling for office must know that productivity really matters – here was my story why and how. It is about underpinning higher wages (without pricing people out of the market), about underpinning more leisure opportunities, improving access to better healthcare, underpinning improvements in life expectancy, and underpinning the consumption of the bits and pieces of consumer society that most of us seem to value. Perhaps if you are an extreme Green you might have an excuse not to care about productivity – or, at the other end of spectrum, a zealot for the New Conservatives – but for the rest it is hard to see, at least if they are serious about anything more than simply occupying office.

Perhaps one can find slight and partial excuses for our politicians. After all, it is not as if the government’s self-proclaimed premier economic advisers, The Treasury, have been firing on all cylinders, generating a steady stream of searching analysis and research with suggested solutions to our decades of economic failure. Then again, as things are set up why would they? Successive National and Labour (and even NZ First) Ministers of Finance have had no real interest: bureaucrats respond to incentives to, and the State Services Commissioners have played their part in appointing as Secretary to the Treasury people who weren’t likely to rock the boat.

But, at best, it is a partial explanation, not an excuse. Real political leaders set the agenda, with ideas of their own, drawing on the expertise of others, and demanding – or promising – much better from the public service. There is no sign of any of that at the top of either of our main parties (and, mostly, the others don’t really matter much, but they don’t seem any different either). I’m sure they are all nice people, but what are they doing – or promising – that might make a real difference, in reversing the decline in our relative material living standards, not just for the next year or two (borrowed money, redistributing a static or shrinking pie) but for the next generation or two (your kids and mine, our grand children etc). Short answer – on the evidence of years and years, and on the evidence of what parties are talking about and promising in this campaign – NOTHING. It is shameful. (And it is also not much excuse to suggest there is no huge groundswell of public anger, demanding something better: we don’t expect voters to engage on real GDP per hour worked, but don’t we hear again and again complaints about gaps in what productivity and growth makes more readily possible – health, housing standards and so on?)

Instead, any (expressed or public) concern seems to be limited to same predictably small group. There is me, here – and in a longer-form treatment here. There is Paul Conway, formerly of the Productivity Commission – where he led their work in this area, before frustration got the better of him – and now at BNZ, and there is Kerry McDonald, former economist, former head of Comalco, former leading company director. McDonald’s latest speech pulls no punches in its title, Our Economic Disaster and the Tragedy of NZ’s Political Leadership. And not much beyond that. The point isn’t that the three of us would agree of everything – we wouldn’t – but that our politicians and senior officials, our political parties, aren’t even engaged on the issue at all, let alone on serious options for making a difference.

One area where it looks as though there is some overlap in the policy prescriptions of Conway, McDonald, and Reddell is around immigration, and a sense – more strongly put at least in my case – that decades of high rates of non-citizen immigration, often not of people who are particularly highly-skilled, has not served us at all well in lifting productivity, even though the official case for high immigration to New Zealand asserted that it was a “critical economic enabler”.

I illustrated earlier in this post how the central and eastern European countries have been catching up and overtaking New Zealand. In this chart I’ve shown the populations of New Zealand and the median of these eight OECD countries this century, drawn from the World Bank/UN data.

e europe sept 20

Or this table of population growth rates this century

Population growth, per cent, 2000-19
Slovak Republic1.2
Czech Republic4.0
New Zealand27.5

All these countries have birth rates below replacement (generally lower than New Zealand’s) and all have had outward migration of their own citizens – us primarily to Australia, the Europeans mostly to western Europe. The big difference is that New Zealand – alone – has pursued rapid population growth as a matter of official policy, aggressively running one of the largest (per capita) official immigration programmes on the planet.

(As I’ve argued in numerous previous posts, rapid population growth isn’t necessarily inconsistent with rapid productivity growth, but rarely if ever has rapid population growth been a recipe for sustained rapid productivity growth – arguably the 19th centuries colonies of settlement, with abundant land may have been exceptions. Much depends on the opportunities, and locations matter. And yes, although Korea now has very modest population growth, Turkey’s population growth has been rapid.)

But, even amid the Covid disruptions – which could have been a great opportunity to stop and rethink – no political party seems interested in revisiting whether New Zealand’s large scale immigration policy has worked in the economic interests of New Zealanders as a whole, and all the media chatter is about getting going again with the supply of relatively lowly-skilled workers from abroad into the New Zealand labour market. There is no sign it has worked for New Zealanders for the past 25 years, and no obvious reason to suppose that will change for the better now.

But our political “leaders” show no sign of caring, at least about anything beyond the latest stories of firms in low-wage industries wanting a resumed supply of people willing to work at….low wages.

Perhaps there is an alternative credible model for thinking about how to reverse sustainably our decades of underperformance. But if so, you wouldn’t know it from listening to our politicians, or their officials.