Original article written by Ezra Klein on NYTimes.com
Here’s something odd: We’re getting worse at construction. Think of the technology we have today that we didn’t in the 1970s. The new generations of power tools and computer modeling and teleconferencing and advanced machinery and prefab materials and global shipping. You’d think we could build much more, much faster, for less money, than in the past. But we can’t. Or, at least, we don’t.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, productivity in the construction sector — how much more could be done given the same number of workers and machines and land — grew faster than productivity in the rest of the economy. Then, around 1970, it began to fall, even as economywide productivity kept rising. Today, the divergence is truly wild. A construction worker in 2020 produced less than a construction worker in 1970, at least according to the official statistics. Contrast that with the economy overall, where labor productivity rose by 290 percent between 1950 and 2020, or to the manufacturing sector, which saw a stunning ninefold increase in productivity.
In the piquantly titled “The Strange and Awful Path of Productivity in the U.S. Construction Sector,” Austan Goolsbee, the newly appointed president of the Chicago Federal Reserve and a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, under President Barack Obama, and Chad Syverson, an economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, set out to uncover whether this is all just a trick of statistics, and if not, what has gone wrong.