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Why Your Facebook Habit At Work Makes Economists Worry

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Productivity, a key measure of the economy's health, has been growing more slowly in recent years — and it has dropped for the past three quarters. Can Facebook and other social media distractions on the job be partly to blame?

Growth in the U.S. economy has been frustratingly slow during the recovery from the Great Recession. And it has fueled a lot of political discussion this year. One characteristic of that slow growth has some economists scratching their heads and others promoting grand theories to explain it.

The mystery for economists is exactly why the productivity of U.S. workers has stagnated in recent years. Their ability to increase their output per hour has been a pillar of economic growth.

Princeton professor Alan Blinder says productivity may sound a little bit boring but, he says, "that is the well from which wages come and wages are, for most people, the well from which their standard of living comes."

NPR / Bureau of Labor Statistics
Bureau of Labor Statistics

If that well runs dry — as it nearly has — you're in trouble. If you can't produce more output in every hour you work, your employer can't afford to give you a raise. And if you don't get paid more, your standard of living stagnates.

Blinder says during most of the past century, U.S. workers increased their hourly output by about 2.3 percent a year, and at that rate, standards of living rise rapidly.

"It takes about a generation or so to double your income," he says.

So each successive generation of Americans had a standard of living roughly double what their parents did.

But, since the turn of the century, productivity growth has been disappointing. And in the in the past five years, it's has grown at a record slow pace — less than half a percent a year.

"If this doesn't change, our standard of living is going to barely grow over the next 30 years. That's a horrible prospect," Blinder says.

For the record, the professor doesn't think that will happen.

He does think he knows one reason the productivity of U.S workers hasn't been increasing recently: Businesses aren't investing enough in better tools for those workers, such as new computer-aided machines, or better-organized workplaces.

Blinder says one would think companies would be doing that. In recent years, they've made record profits, but they've been slow to reinvest them. And even if companies don't have cash, they can still borrow and invest at record low interest rates.

Princeton University Professor Alan Blinder says one reason productivity has been sluggish is because businesses aren't investing enough in better tools for workers.
John Locher / AP
Princeton University Professor Alan Blinder says one reason productivity has been sluggish is because businesses aren't investing enough in better tools for workers.

So what's stopping them?

"I'm kind of baffled," Blinder says. "I've been scratching my head a lot to try to figure out what's going on and I haven't succeeded."

Could it be that companies are still cautious after having been burned by the Great Recession? Blinder is doubtful. He says when someone offers that explanation he asks, "Well then how come they're hiring so many people?"

Economist Robert Gordon of Northwestern University thinks he knows the answer. He says companies are not investing because there are no new "game changing" innovations to invest in — real, transformative innovations like electricity, the internal combustion engine and jet travel — innovations that raised the productivity of American workers in the last century.

But, you might ask Gordon, what about computers and the Internet?

"The main benefits of the IT revolution have already occurred," he says. "There just are not as many fruitful ways to invest."

Gordon says since the late 1990s, investment in computer equipment has fallen by half. "And my diagnosis is that people have the computers they need," he says.

But, he says, it's not that Silicon Valley isn't busy. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there's no innovation, I'm talking about the impact of it," he says.

Gordon says the current crop of innovations, like smartphone apps, may be making life easier or more fun, but they're not making workers significantly more productive.

Blinder goes a step further, listing some distractions that may subtract from productivity: "Things like ... tweeting, Snapchatting, things that to me are unlikely to raise industrial productivity and may, by the way, reduce that. I'm thinking of things like Facebooking when on the job and other things like that."

But what about advances in artificial intelligence or self-driving vehicles? Gordon says their impact on worker productivity is still a long way off. He says productivity growth is likely to be slow for the next 25 years and suggests it will be 50 years or more before autonomous vehicles are fully integrated into the society.

But Gordon says that measures of industrial productivity have never captured all the advancements in quality of life that come from innovation: "The value of the conquest of infectious diseases, infant mortality and the removal of horse waste from the streets when automobiles replaced horses."

Both Gordon and Blinder agree that boosting productivity remains the key to boosting incomes and U.S. growth, and one long-term answer is better-educated workers.

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John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.