Thursday, 7 December 2017

Blaming the 'marginalised'

The offensiveness and insensitivity of the remarks made by the Chancellor to the Treasury Select Committee yesterday mean that an important point about the way in which productivity is measured and its importance to the economy is in danger of being lost in a barrage of wholly justified criticism of Hammond’s choice of words.  Describing the disabled as a marginal group in society was an open invitation for the attacks to concentrate on the man rather than the message.
Productivity is a simple enough concept at the level of any individual enterprise – it’s a mathematical calculation of output divided by input, or in practice the value of the goods or services produced divided by the number of hours worked by employees to produce that output.  That doesn’t necessarily match what many might think of though.  Certainly it means that ‘productivity’ can be increased if the same output can be produced with half the workforce; but it also means that ‘productivity’ can be increased by simply upping the price of the product, as long as the labour costs remain the same.  But does that really mean (in terms that most of us can relate to) that the workers have suddenly become more productive?
Using the same measure scaled up for the economy as a whole brings other problems.  Dividing the GDP of the UK by the number of hours worked by all employees of all organisations certainly provides a ready measure of something, and if all countries are measured in the same way, it provides a handy basis for comparison.  But it does also mean that an economy which adds lots of jobs at low pay rates for small increases in overall GDP will appear to be losing productivity compared to other economies which do not follow that path.  It doesn’t matter that the overall GDP of the country has increased, whether measured in absolute terms or in terms of GDP per head. 
On this measure, it doesn’t matter that there are more people in work and fewer on benefits; a measure of productivity per hour worked will react in the ‘wrong’ way to an increase in employment in jobs which only add marginally to overall GDP.  Note that – and this is why the Chancellor was so wrong in the way he made his remarks – it doesn’t matter who the people doing those jobs are; it’s not that the people doing the work are in marginal groups, it’s the low-paid low-output nature of the jobs which are being created which is the problem. 
More important still is how we respond to the situation.  If productivity as currently measured is the prime driver, then it could actually be improved by closing down marginal enterprises, and cutting the numbers employed in the less marginal enterprises.  Total GDP would fall, and GDP per head in the economy would fall, but ‘productivity’ would apparently increase.  That merely underlines the fact that ‘productivity’ as currently measured is a poor tool for judging overall economic success.  None of that means that the low level of productivity in the UK economy compared to others isn’t a problem.  It means, rather, that we need to look at what else can be done to improve the situation, rather than blaming marginal groups or even marginal enterprises.  It's a question about what sort of economy we want.
We could start by looking at the performance of those companies which are sitting on large sums of cash rather then investing them.  I’m sure that some of them would argue that the uncertainty caused by Brexit is a reason to hold back on investment.  They’d be right up to a point – but this is a phenomenon which long preceded Brexit.  It’s a failure of capitalism to serve the needs of the community as a whole rather than the greed of the few.  But it’s much easier for a Tory Chancellor to blame those he regards as ‘marginal’ than to look a lot closer to home.

1 comment:

Sprit of BME said...

I think congratulations are in order, in that you have a blog that does not obsess on Brexit, however I have a feeling deep in my water that this respite will be short lived.
You make some excellent points on the difficulty of comparing GDP among different economies, but I would add that the different phase in the economic cycle between countries is significant and that makes commentators to draw the wrong conclusions on the figures they see.
In Britain we have seen the flow of cheap labour that has supressed wage demand play its role, but the large amount of cash that companies are sitting on, is partly due to the hesitation to invest owing to the next big thing in technology, which is artificial intelligence and the wrong investment now could cost industry dearly.