Simon recently tweeted that it is important to ask why we are not talking about the crisis of stagnant productivity all the time. He’s surely right: this is our most important economic problem. So why isn’t it a top political priority? The fault, I suspect lies with voters, politicians and the media.
In voters’ case, it’s because stagnant productivity isn’t very salient. “Some Latvians moved in down the road and now my son can’t get a decent job” is an obvious story to tell – even if it’s wrong. But the UK’s productivity slowdown, and our low productivity relative to other developed countries, is a story about countless things that UK businesses do less well than their French or American counterparts and about impersonal forces such as low investment and innovation, slower world trade growth, a fear of credit constraints, a slowdown in entry and exit and so on. Such things are important, but not vivid.
Reinforcing this is a self-serving bias. People would rather blame their low pay upon immigrants than on the fact that they are incompetent unskilled buffoons.
Herein, though, lies a defect of modern democracy. Because the notion of consumer sovereignty has taken over politics, politicians think that what they’re “hearing on the doorstep” matters. In some ways it does. But it can also be a lousy guide to what really matters economically. Few politicians are brave enough to tell voters: “you shouldn’t worry about that; this is a bigger problem.”
And, of course, the media reinforces this. The BBC takes its agenda from politicians and the press. If these are talking about what are trivial matters economically speaking such as immigration or government borrowing, the BBC will reflect this and so ignore productivity. This is reinforced by three other factors:
- The BBC prefers controversy. A row between idiots – one of whom is usually called Nigel – is better TV or radio than an expert discussion of productivity.
- Official productivity data comes out only quarterly (though it can be inferred from monthly data), whereas figures on inflation and government borrowing are monthly. This means the news will more often report the latter than the former.
- Productivity is a dry abstract story. The media are much better at human interest stories than in analysing social structures and impersonal forces.
But perhaps there’s something else. Many people do think: “I’d be better paid if this place weren’t so badly managed”. This sentiment, however, never gets onto the political agenda and the connection from this notion to worker democracy never gets made. Bosses are regarded as the only experts whose competence is unchallengeable. Maybe therefore the relative silence about productivity is yet another example of how managerialism – or neoliberalism if you insist – has triumphed so totally.