President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers just released their final Economic Report of the President and it is the perfect holiday gift for your favorite econo-nerd. (It’s also, I fear, the last cogent ERP we might see for a bit.)
So, for the next few days, I’ll highlight some of the arguments in there that really resonated with me and some of my colleagues.*
Whenever people bemoan the slowdown in GDP growth in recent years, part of me moans with them but part of me doesn’t, because some of the growth deceleration is a function of slower population growth. Remember, growth is basically productivity plus labor input, and an aging population tends to slow the latter.
Thus, whenever you’re making long-term historical comparisons over periods where this population growth factor is in play, you must account for it, by looking not simply at real GDP growth, but at some measure of per-capita growth.
Think of it this way. Suppose GDP’s growing at 3 percent, and the population is growing at 1 percent. Thus, GDP/capita is growing at 2 percent. Now, suppose both slow half-a-percent. You could complain about slower aggregate growth, but on a per-capita basis, growth hasn’t changed at all. And that means there’s the same amount of income per person to go around (obviously, we’re not talking about inequality yet–that’s to come in later posts).
The figure below shows the sharp deceleration in the growth rate of the working-age population, meaning we’d expect overall growth to slow, just based on the decelerating trend of this input.
The next figure is one I made, but totally ripped off from the ERP (Fig 2-viii; I remade it so I could calculate the “slowdown” bar, which isn’t in their figure; the current cycle looks a little different in my figure, maybe because I used more recent data). Overall GDP growth slows by a very significant 1.9 percent in the first set of bars. But the deceleration is half that much if we use the working-age population, and about a third if we look at “per labor-force participant.” (I’d argue that the slowdown under this latter measure is a bit biased by weak labor force participation having to do more with insufficient demand than demographics; i.e., it’s “endogenous”.)
Trust me when I tell you that none of us is downplaying the importance of that slower growth rate under these working-age population-adjusted measures. If anything, those negative bars represent what I (and I believe CEA) consider our most pressing macroeconomic challenge: the slowdown in productivity growth (about which the ERP has many excellent figures which I’ll parade out soon).
But it is somewhere in between incomplete and misleading to complain about the slowdown in GDP growth without accounting for the sharp slowdown in the growth of the working-age population.
*Do not confuse this with my Best CBPP Charts of 2016, as that’s still to come. IKR!: an embarrassment of riches.