Toward a ‘renewing’ economic policy for the new economy

Luc Soete and Bas ter Weel

For the first time, the Central Economic Plan of the Central Bureau of Planning (CPB) focuses on the consequences of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for macro-economic development and public policy. "The ‘renewing’ economy", the title chosen by Gelauff and de Bijl, is probably meant to indicate that the Dutch CPB is as yet not fully converted to the new economy. We don’t mind, welcome anyway to the club of believers that something "new" has happened to the economy. The reader, we suggest, couldn’t care less whether the developments in the United States point to a renewing economy or a new economy. For Dutch Calvinists readers though, we do remain strong adherents of the concept of a ‘new economy’ with or without capital letters. Not only has the concept of the ‘new economy’ become an accepted standard concept, increasingly used in (inter-)national policy circles from national banks to OECD, but also the macro-economic developments in the United States increasingly indicate that there has indeed been an accelerated growth in productivity since the fourth quarter of 1995. Figure 1 shows e.g. the trend in productivity in the non-farm sector in the US in the period 1973-1999. The average productivity growth in the period 1973-1995 was 1.4%, and increased abruptly to 2.9% thereafter. According to many commentators, such as Alan Greenspan, this break actually coincides with the use and diffusion of Internet in the US having reached a sufficient critical mass levels somewhere around the end of the fourth quarter of 1995. Based on studies such as the one of Robert Gordon, the CPB claims that this represents actually only a limited structural acceleration of productivity growth in the US based entirely on productivity growth achieved in the computer and software industries. However, recent studies from the Washington Fed (Oliner and Sichel), the US Department of Commerce and the OECD have revealed a much broader and significant increase in productivity growth in the US, closely associated with widespread use of ICT across both US industrial and service sectors. The most recent report of the OECD talks even of the end of the so-called Solow paradox, ICT diffusion finally showing up in US productivity growth statistics.

But regardless of who is right here, we obviously agree with Gelauff and de Bijl, that based on data available for the Netherlands, there has been no such evidence for the Netherlands. Dutch productivity has not grown at all: in the 1995-1998 period, macro-labour productivity increased by an average percentage of 0.75 annually. In such sectors as commercial service provision, productivity growth even diminished. In a country where "work, work and work again" was the most successful political ambition of the 1990s, it is not really surprising that the growth in aggregated labour productivity is eventually as flat as its polder landscape.

It is from this perspective, that the paper of Gelauff and de Bijl is actually most disappointing and illustrative of the CPB’s duality with respect to possible evidence on the new or renewing economy. Indeed reading the policy conclusions of the paper one gets the impression that even if there was evidence of a new economy productivity trend, it would barely alter the general economic policy view. Indeed, the only policy conclusions the authors arrive at is a vague list of "issues that require closer attention". One may indeed wonder what the value to policy makers might be of "the combination of a sober and open vision with regard to the impact of ICT on public policy" which and again we quote "is also appropriate for the renewing economy".

From this point of view, the half conversion of the CPB to the renewing economy appears rather contra-productive: the authors have in the end a surprisingly superficial view of what a full new economy trend might have to offer to a country such as the Netherlands in terms of domestic policy challenges. And this is where we differ most clearly with the authors. For us the "renewing" policy challenge for the new economy is simple enough, departing from the following central question. How can the Netherlands achieve an acceleration of its measured labour productivity growth that will, just as in the case of the US, eventually translate higher realised growth into a more efficient use of ICT? How can the Netherlands convert its extensive, labour-expanding growth process of the 90’s – which is bound to lead to tensions in the labour market soon – into a growth process based on labour productivity growth? Hence, and in spite of the continued large group of "non-actives" in the Dutch labour force which obviously have to become activated, how can we start tackling the problem of low measured labour productivity growth, which is at least according to official figures still lagging behind compared to the neighbouring countries? This is exactly where knowledge-intensive growth and ICT come in, allowing employees to make better use of their potential capacities, cutting right across the labour market. From this perspective, existing labour market shortages signal the most urgent needs for additional training. The existing formal, high level of "overeducation" in the Netherlands offers actually the possibility to fill these gaps using focused training programmes. This could well lead to some sort of "suction power" within the labour pyramid, comparable with that inside a chimney, which contrasts with the "displacement" effect of the 1980s, where high unemployment generally led to the exclusion of lower qualified by higher qualified personnel and overeducation was the rule.

There is, of course also a part of the potentially higher efficiency and cost reduction with regard to the use of ICT that cannot and might possibly never be found back in productivity statistics. Particularly in the services sector, the initial phase of ICT use has led to computers being used at virtually all workplaces and to an enormous expansion in terms of the type and differentiated nature of products and services.

In this context, it is important to stress that ICT is in first instance conducive to growth rather than just cost-saving. This is shown, among other things, by CPB figures: the Dutch ICT sector accounts for only five per cent of total production, while realising seventy-five per cent of total growth. High time then, to change the current economic policy track. In the new economy there is not just a need for an "activation" of the labour force for fear of running into wage-induced inflationary pressures and other labour market shortages, there is also a strong need for the "activation" of learning and participation of all sorts: of education, of training and other forms of human capital formation. Ultimately labour creation cannot be a societal goal in itself, but more income, a more efficient use of scarce resources with more time to spend on consumption, on free time, on a better informed fulfilment of unsatisfied needs surely can.