The Productivity Story
By Arnold Kling
Is productivity growth the most overlooked economic story? Brad DeLong thinks so, and Virginia Postrel agrees.
The productivity story is boring. It isn’t really, but editors think it is. There’s no obvious conflict, no scandal, no little guy getting hurt (unless you portray rising productivity as throwing people out of work, which is the most common angle). The improvements that drive productivity increases are incremental–hence, not dramatic–and often technical.
In addition to the problems cited by Postrel, there is the fact that productivity growth is a long-term story. Although with DeLong citing a gain of 20 percent in four years, the impact of productivity growth no longer takes decades to be felt, there are no decisive days or weeks in the productivity story.
Mostly, I believe that journalists tend to be negative, and productivity growth is too much of a positive-sum game to register with them. I think that the left is much more inclined to see the economy in zero-sum terms, where redistribution matters more than growth.
Speaking of the press, here is an email I sent to the Washington Post ombudsman this morning.
I am a long-time subscriber and I like to read all points of view, but today’s front page really troubled me. It contained two news-analysis articles, each of which read like a rally for opponents of President Bush.
The article on “health care vs. tax cuts” made it sound as if the only way I can spend more of my money on health care is if the government does it for me. The fact that people who have more discretionary income from tax cuts could choose to spend that income on health insurance or health care or something that is more important to them is left out. In that article, you quote Bruce Bartlett, who I know is completely disillusioned with President Bush for his *failure to cut spending* even more. He is disgusted with Bush for spending so much and thinks that Kerry would not be any worse. If you want to print a quote from Bartlett supporting your “analysis,” then you ought to spell out where Bartlett is coming from, instead of making it sound like Bartlett is a Bush supporter on fiscal policy. Or find someone else to quote to balance the article.
Then there is the “analysis” which claims that the Bush doctrine has been undermined by events in Iraq. If anything, the Bush foreign policy has been undermined by relentless attacks in the media, such as your front page (which consistently runs editorials that are more anti-Bush and anti-war than what appears on your editorial page). The article is very selective and unbalanced in its choice of “experts” to quote. Robert Kagan is written off as an “Administration supporter,” while all of the critics of the Administration are not labeled as such. Instead, for critics one sees things like “nonpartisan Brussels-based group,” which is a standard way for the liberal media to identify left-wingers (and having Googled the International Crisis Group, my sense is indeed that is what they are).
I believe that the Post could do two things to remedy this. One is to simply drop the pretense of unbiased journalism, and simply say that the front page is used to promote the opinions of your reporters and editorial staff. Ultimately, I think that this is the most honest approach.
If you wish to try to hang on to the myth of an unbiased front page, then I think you ought to hire a conservative to scrutinize the front page before it is printed. That way, some of the bias will be caught ahead of time, rather than leaving it up to the readers.
UPDATE: James Glassman has a recent perspective on media bias.
For Discussion. Of the various reasons offered for the failure of the press to focus on productivity and economic growth, which do you find most persuasive?