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The Most Productive Workers in the World

August 2, 2016

I’ve complained when Republican partisans have made exaggerated claims of American achievements to further their political goals – as when House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asserted that American health care was the best in the world to justify their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. In that case, I compared per person health care costs to average life expectancy by country and found that the United States spends far and away more on health care than any other country but ranks 31st in life expectancy – about a month shorter life expectancy than Cubans, who spend 93 percent less per person on health care than we do.

One of the themes of the Democratic National Convention last week was American greatness. In accordance with that theme, Vice President Joe Biden pronounced during his speech that American workers are “the most productive in the world.” Flattery of American workers is no doubt a good electoral tactic. But fair is fair, so I decided to do a little checking.

The standard measure of worker productivity is gross domestic product per hour worked. The problem is that neither GDP nor hours worked can be precisely calculated; both must be estimated.

Still, the two sources of solid-looking information I found agree: the United States is not king of the hill in worker productivity. Wikipedia lists 62 countries in order of GDP per hour worked; the United States ranks third, behind Luxembourg and Norway. Wikipedia’s listing is based on data from estimable sources: The Conference Board, Eurostat, and the Penn World Table maintained by academics at the University of California and the University of Groningen. Wikipedia uses the purchasing power parity (PPP) measure of GDP, and uses data from 2013.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development compiles data annually for its 35 member countries, 2014 being the most recent year for which OECD data are complete. The OECD also uses the PPP measure of GDP, and, although OECD’s numbers are slightly different than Wikipedia’s, the OECD ranking also puts the U.S. third, again behind Norway and Luxembourg, where we have been since 2010. Before 2010, U.S. workers last ranked third in productivity in 1973. In between, American productivity fell as low as ninth, in 1997, before recovering to third place 13 years later. In no year of OECD data, which goes back to 1970, was American worker productivity the highest, or even second.

Third place ain’t bad. I’ve been to Norway and Luxembourg, and while there’s a lot to recommend both countries, I’ll be glad to stick with the U.S. – better Chinese food, if nothing else. Still, the Vice President said we are number one, and we are not.

I came across an interesting side point in data published by a British consulting firm, Expert Market. Expert Market pointed out that seven countries were in both the top ten of most productive per hour and the bottom ten in number of hours worked. Conversely, eight countries were in both the bottom ten of most productive per hour and the top ten in number of hours worked. Mexican workers put in the most hours, at an average of 2,228 per year; Germans worked the least, at 1,371. American workers put in an average of 1,789 hours per year, almost exactly halfway between the two extremes.

These number suggest that, worldwide, there are limits to the desire to acquire. Where workers are less productive and therefore less well paid, they tend to put in more hours. But as workers become more productive and therefore earn more per hour, they are apparently inclined to cut back their work hours. In that respect, American workers have in recent years been an exception: hours worked in this country has held more or less constant since 1980, while productivity has climbed.


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