Arnold Kling  

Notes From the Field

Private Accounts Can Save Soci... Chad Seagren on Service in a F...

That is, from Alexander J. Field's A Great Leap Forward. I rate the book as must-read. It is about the behavior of productivity in various eras of the twentieth century. He rates the 1930's the highest (!) and the 1973-1989 period the lowest. Not much argument about the latter, of course.

I am tempted to say that this is what economic methods should be. Addressing important questions with relatively simple models and statistical techniques. I will write a longer review essay for another outlet. I am tempted to write still another review essay to try to submit to a peer-reviewed journal.

Field's outlook is marred, in my opinion, by what I might term regulatory fundamentalism. If a market fundamentalist always sees costs and ignores benefits of regulation, then Field does quite the opposite. He leaves this reader longing for at least a little bit of balance.

Anyway, the point of this post is not to write the complete review. I want to put some quotes from the book down, mostly for my own future reference.

p. 3

The causes of the slowdown in productivity growth during the "dark ages" (1973 through 1989 or 1995) remain an enigma...The decrease in nondefense research and development spending probably played a role...Continued road construction would not necessarily have avoided retardation; by the early 1970s, the low-hanging fruit had largely been harvested. Nevertheless, the exhaustion of potental gains from such infrastructural investments does help us understand why productivity growth slowed after 1973.

The economic and productivity history of the twentieth century up through 1995 can thus be thought of as a tale of two transitions. The first involved the electrification and reconfiguration of the American factory, a development that had its roots in the 1880s but blossomed only in the 1920s...The second transition, involving the movement of goods, peaked later. From the late 1920s through the early 1970s, trucking expanded its share of interstate ton mileage, while the rail sector shrank, specializing as it did so.


we can say that private sector inputs, conventionally measured, grew not at all between 1929 and 1941...But real output was between 33 and 40 percent higher in 1941 compared with 1929.

...between 1929 and 1941, there was no capital deepening (increase in the capital-labor ratio)...virtually all of the increase in both output and output per hour is attributable to growth in total factor productivity


there is relatively limited evidence of beneficial feedback from wartime production to civilian activity in the postwar period.

p. 31:

between 1919 and 1928 inclusive, companies founded an average of 66 R and D labs per year. Between 1929 and 1936 inclusive...such foundings rose to over 73 per year. During the 1930s, industry R and D expenditures more than doubled in real terms, with acceleration in the last years of the decade...employment of research scientists and engineers grew 72.9 percent between 1929 and 1933...Between 1933 and 1940, R and D employment in U.S. manufacturing almost tripled, from 10,918 to 27,777. In the Second World War, in contrast, R and D employment growth slowed

p. 36:
Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo also remarked on the high rate of labor productivity and real wage growth during the Depression years...Their explanation for why wages increased as employment fell has been selective retention...firms laid off their less skilled workers

p. 47:

some older and less productive plants that had persisted in operation during the boom period of the 1920s simply shut down as the economy went into recession between 1929 and 1933, and it was the remaining (and higher-productivity) facilities that supplied output as the economy recovered.

p. 55:

Margo (1991) has documented how much lower was the incidence of Depression unemployment among professional, technical, and managerial occupational classifications as compared, for example, with unskilled or blue-collar labor or workers with fewer years of schooling.

p. 72:

projects administered by the Public Works Administration (1933-1939) and the Works Progress Administration...probably would have been undertaken (with a supply-side rather than a make-work justification) had the economy not headed south.

p. 80

whatever positive shocks may have been associated with progress in the mass production of airframes, shkps, penicillin, or munitions/fertilizer were largely counterbalanced by...the disruption to the economy resulting from rapid mobilization and demobilization.

p. 122:

during the last decade of the twentieth century, revolutionary technological or organizational change--the sort that shows up in TFP growth--was concentrated within distribution, securities trading, and a narrow range of industries...that included the production of semiconductors, computers, networking, and telecommunications equipment.

p. 133-134:

hedonic methods yielded end-of-century estimates in the range of -27 percent per year for the rate of decrease of quality-adjusted computer prices...Thus, if I used a laptop in 1999 and another in 2004 selling at the same nominal price (say $2000), the BEA would have concluded...that there had been a fourfold increase in the ratio of capital services to hours in my intellectual work

p. 135:

saving flows would have been congealed in other not quite as good capital goods...

the capital-deepening effect should ultimately be credited to saving behavior and not to the enabling technologies.


The user cost of a warehouse or hotel is largely the same whether it is full or half empty. We can attribute reductions in unit costs as the output gap closes to short-run economies of scale


Twelve percentage points of the more than 30 percent drop in real output between 1929 and 1933 is attributable to downward movement in TFP/

p. 253:

the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, which led directly to the savings and loan crisis less than a decade later

Note: This is the most egregious illustration of Field's regulatory fundamentalism. The S&L industry was insolvent before 1982. What took place from 1982-1987 were attempts by the industry, its friends in Congress, and regulators to cover up the facts and postpone the inevitable shutdowns by using phony accounting, for which Garn-St. Germain does not deserve chief blame.
p. 258:
Although the disruption to the accumulation of equipment (producer durables) during the Depression was transitory, the retardation in the accumulation of longer-lived structures persisted until after the war

p. 265:

gross equipment investment recovered much more strongly than investment in structures after 1933.

p. 272:

Housing typically generates upward of 10 percent of GDP. The productivity problem in the sector involves translating investment in buildings and residential infrastructure into market-validated rental service flows. Residential construction was much more effective in doing this after World War II, but this was in part due to zoning, land use regulations, and innovations in the design of residential subdivisions pioneered during the Depression but not having their full effect after the war...The success of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which laid the foundation for potential output growth in the sector after the war, represents another positive legacy of the New Deal.

This account, which is sourced in part with historical analysis produced by the FHA, is another illustration of Field's regulatory fundamentalism.

p. 275:

The idea the the New Deal hindered recovery by leading to a capital questionable given the evidence of strong revival in equipment accumulation and large increases in income to capital. The major problem was in construction.

p. 296:

a financial boom-bust cycle misallocates physical capital in an upswing, in some cases with irreversible or expensively reversible adverse consequences. And the downswing deprives the economy of capital formation that might have taken place in the absence of the recession.

p. 297:

With or without the depression Wallace Carothers would have invented nylon.

I love this line, but when I went back to find it, I could not find it by looking up "nylon" in the index, even though it contains two other entries for nylon. So I went to Google books and found it by doing a search for "nylon." Advantage: Google.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (4 to date)
Robert Waldmann writes:

I find myself in the odd position of thinking that Field understates the benefits of public spending. I'd qualify "there is relatively limited evidence of beneficial feedback from wartime production to civilian activity in the postwar period." to " there is relatively little evidence in NIPA accounts etc".

I think that when we look at specific technologies we see benefits from cost is no object investment in new technologies. Boeing is a productive firm because of WWII era contracts to build bombers and the resulting learning by doing (and pile of cash). Electronic computers were developed as part of the war effort and are, as noted by Field, a cause of TFP growth. The DARPA net (military but not related to a hot war)has had useful civilian civilian offshoots such as this blog.

Penicillin was a coincidence (the funding for the research was unrelated to the war effort and miniscule -- I mean they were growing mold in bed pans).

My view is that R is key to growth and that you have to wait a very long time for it to be developed.

This also means that I don't find the data from the 30s so odd. I'd say the real fruits of electrification took decades to ripen. My guess is that the same technology which contributed to the roaring 20s (along with irrational exuberance) caused high productivity growth in the 30s. Similarly huge R&D efforts in information technology in the 70s and 80s bore fruit in the 90s and 00s.

There is just no way to test a hypothesis about lags on the order of 20 years with aggregate data. I think that fine scale disaggregation at the level of counting electric motors (20-39) or computers makes the puzzles less puzzling.

Kaleberg writes:

It helps to remember that by the time of the Great Depression, manufacturing efficiency had been growing in terms of labor per output by two or three orders of magnitude. Compare an 1890 glass bottle blowing factory with guys blowing through hot tubes to a 1920 glass bottle factory with machines blowing compressed air and shaping the glass with a mold. Fortune had a number of articles on this in the 1930s, wondering where the new jobs were going to come from as industrial and transportation processes grew increasingly efficient.

Mark A. Sadowski writes:

What fascinates me is how libertarian bloggers seem to love Alexander J. Field's work. Tyler Cowen refers to TFP (total factor productivity, or the residual from in growth after accounting for physical capital and labor accumulation) when making his argument for the Great Stagnation, and has leaned heavily on his research in advancing his argument for example.

A good source of information on historical TFP growth is a few of papers by Field: “US economic growth in the gilded age”, “The Most Technologically Progressive Decade of the Century” and “The origins of US total factor productivity growth in the golden age”.

Average annual TFP growth is as follows:


The first thing that should grab your attention is that TFP growth was at its most rapid during the Great Depression. The second thing you should observe is that TFP growth was at 1.9% or higher from the 1870s through 1973 with the exception of 1892-1919 and 1941-1948. TFP growth has picked up since 1995 (but has slowed since 2005). So this pretty much supports Tyler Cowen’s conjecture concerning the Great Stagnation.

Now, why was TFP growth faster during the periods mentioned? Well, Field analyzes the growth by sector and sector size and comes to some interesting conclusions. TFP growth was fast from the 1870s through 1892 because of railroads (which peaked in track mileage in 1916) and to a much lesser extent because of the telegraph. Almost all growth in TFP in the 1920s can be accounted for by manufacturing and that probably fed that decade’s stock market boom. Why did manufacturing TFP explode in the 1920s? According to Field it was due to the widespread electrification of factories (which had started in the 1880s). In the 1930s manufacturing TFP, although still relatively fast, slowed down. (He also points out that private R&D quintipled from 1929-1941.) But transportation TFP soared from 1929-1941 mainly due to the five fold increase in the share of tons-miles hauled by interstate trucking and its interaction with railroad transportation. (The US built its first interstate highway system in the 1930s.) And he argues that transportation TFP was largely responsible for the growth seen from 1948-1973, as manufacturing TFP actually went negative for part of that period. (And recall the Interstate Highway System, built on top of or paralleling the US Route system of the 1930s was largely completed from 1956-1973.) TFP growth was negative from 1855 to the 1870s primarily because of the Civil War.

Recent work by Bart van Ark shows that TFP in the distribution sector was the main source of the surge in growth from 1995-2005, and he argues that was due to the widespread adoption of ICT technology by that sector. (Think big box Walmarts.)

What’s interesting is that, in his several papers on the subject, and now in his book, Field painstakingly and eloquently lays out the case that Federal government money played a major role in all of those developments with the exception of factory electrification (urban areas were largely electrified with private money), even, and perhaps especially, the internet.

So I'm utterly mystified why libertarians love Field so much.

Glen writes:

This passage...

Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo also remarked on the high rate of labor productivity and real wage growth during the Depression years...Their explanation for why wages increased as employment fell has been selective retention...firms laid off their less skilled workers

...makes me wonder how much of the alleged high productivity growth of the Depression years is just an artifact of diminishing returns. If you have a concave productivity curve (that is, output increases with input, but at a decreasing rate), then it's just a mathematical fact that average productivity (output divided by input) will be lower when input is high and higher when input is low. The reduction in employment of both labor and capital during the Depression would quite naturally have increased measured average productivity.

But it's been a long time since I studied this stuff, so maybe the measurement of TFP somehow controls for that effect.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top