Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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La bestia a la que no se puede hacer pasar hambre

CAMBRIDGE – Mientras el mundo mira como Estados Unidos lidia con su futuro fiscal, los vericuetos de la batalla reflejan divisiones sociales y filosóficas mayores, que probablemente asuman diversos aspectos en todo el mundo durante las próximas décadas. Se ha discutido mucho sobre cómo reducir el gasto gubernamental, pero demasiado poco sobre la eficiencia de ese gasto. Sin embargo, si no se aplican enfoques más creativos a la provisión de servicios gubernamentales, su costo continuará aumentando inexorablemente con el tiempo.

Todas las industrias con uso intensivo de servicios enfrentan los mismos desafíos. Allá por la década de 1960, los economistas William Baumol y William Bowen escribieron sobre la «enfermedad de los costos» que asuela estas industrias. El famoso ejemplo que usaron fue el de un cuarteto de cuerdas de Mozart, que todavía requiere la misma cantidad de instrumentos y músicos en los tiempos actuales que en el siglo XIX. De igual manera, un maestro necesita aproximadamente la misma cantidad de tiempo que hace cien años para calificar un trabajo. Los buenos plomeros cuestan una pequeña fortuna porque, también en este caso, la tecnología ha evolucionado muy lentamente.

¿Por qué el lento crecimiento de la productividad produce costos elevados? El problema es que en última instancia las industrias de servicios deben competir por la misma mano de obra que los sectores con un elevado crecimiento de la productividad, como las finanzas, la industria manufacturera y las tecnologías de la información. Aún cuando las reservas de trabajadores pueden estar segmentadas en alguna medida, hay suficiente solapamiento como para obligar a los sectores con uso intensivo de servicios a pagar salarios más elevados, al menos en el largo plazo.

El gobierno, por supuesto, es el sector intensivo en servicios por antonomasia. Los empleados gubernamentales incluyen a docentes, policías, recolectores de residuos y personal militar.

Las escuelas modernas se parecen mucho más a las de hace 50 años que las fábricas modernas. Y, si bien la innovación militar ha sido espectacular, aún requiere mucha mano de obra. Si la gente desea el mismo nivel de servicios gubernamentales en relación a otros consumos, el gasto gubernamental ocupará una porción cada vez mayor del producto nacional.

De hecho, no solo ha aumentado la participación del gasto gubernamental en el ingreso, también ha aumentado el gasto en muchos sectores de servicios. Actualmente, el sector de servicios, incluido el gobierno, constituye más del 70 % del ingreso nacional en la mayoría de las economías avanzadas.

La agricultura, que en el siglo XIX representaba más de la mitad del ingreso nacional, se ha reducido a unos pocos puntos porcentuales. La reducción del empleo manufacturero, que tal vez generaba un tercio o más de los puestos de trabajo antes de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, ha sido impresionante. En EE. UU., por ejemplo, el sector manufacturero emplea a menos del 10 % de los trabajadores. Entonces, aún cuando los conservadores económicos exigen recortes en el gasto, hay poderosas fuerzas que operan en dirección contraria.

Hay que reconocer que el problema es peor en el sector gubernamental, donde el crecimiento de la productividad es mucho menor que en otros sectores de servicios. Si bien esto puede reflejar la combinación particular de los servicios que deben proporcionar los gobiernos, difícilmente sea esa una explicación completa.

Es cierto, parte del problema es que para los gobiernos el empleo no solo sirve para proporcionar servicios sino también para efectuar transferencias implícitas. Además, las agencias gubernamentales funcionan en muchas áreas donde enfrentan poca competencia –y, con ello, poca presión para innovar.

¿No convendría involucrar más al sector privado, o al menos aumentar la competencia, en el gobierno? La educación, donde apenas se ha sentido el poder perturbador de las tecnologías modernas, sería un buen punto de partida. Existen sofisticados programas informáticos para la calificación de ensayos en la escuela media que están alcanzando niveles bastante buenos, si no están ya a la altura de los mejores maestros.

La infraestructura es otro sector obvio donde ampliar la participación del sector privado. Alguna vez, por ejemplo, se creyó que quienes transitaran por rutas privadas tendrían que esperar mucho tiempo en los peajes. Los transpondedores y modernos sistemas automáticos de pago, sin embargo, han solucionado ese tema.

Pero no deberíamos creer que la mayor provisión de servicios por el sector privado es una panacea. Aún sería necesario regular, en especial cuando se trata de monopolios u oligopolios. Y aún sería necesario decidir cómo equilibrar la eficiencia y la equidad en la provisión de servicios. La educación es claramente un área en la que todos los países están interesados en crear una situación equitativa.

Como presidente estadounidense durante la década de 1980, el conservador Ronald Reagan describió su política fiscal como «hacer pasar hambre a la bestia»: recortar los impuestos obligará eventualmente a la gente a aceptar un menor gasto gubernamental. En muchos aspectos, su enfoque tuvo gran éxito. Pero el gasto gubernamental continuó creciendo porque los votantes aún desean los servicios que proporciona el gobierno. Actualmente queda claro que limitar al gobierno también implica encontrar formas de definir incentivos para que la innovación en el gobierno se mantenga a la par de la innovación en otros sectores.

Sin nuevas ideas sobre cómo innovar en la provisión de servicios gubernamentales, las batallas como las que vemos hoy día en EE. UU. solo pueden empeorar, ya que los votantes deben pagar cada vez más por menos. Los políticos pueden hacer un mejor trabajo y prometerán hacerlo, pero no tendrán éxito a menos que identifiquemos formas de mejorar la eficiencia y la productividad en los servicios gubernamentales.

Traducción al español por Leopoldo Gurman.

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  1. CommentedOliver Kovacs

    Reading Prof. Rogoff's articles is always instructive.
    As the empiria showed, neither the fiscal stimuli nor the fiscal austerity could trigger growth impact, instead, fiscal conditions have just worsened further due to the decline in GDP. A some type of aurea mediocritas consolidation should be of paramount importance that addresses the issue of supporting R&D&I in a pro-cyclical way while counter-cyclically reduces expenditures in inproductive spheres (public sector wages, salaries, social transfers as Alesina and other works on non-keynesian effects justified).
    I would raise the issue of how to incentivise public sector to be more innovative in favouring the term "more for less". Innovation, as it was rightly pointed out by many, is hampered by a lot well-documented factor, however, the literature does not devote enough attention to the importance of inherent incentives of innovation that differ across institutional architectures. /see a policy brief on "Policies Supporting Innovation in Public Sector Provision" which tries to address this crucial gap /

  2. Commentedjack lasersohn

    While it is certainly true that 'voters want the services that government provides' it is equally true that most of them do not bear the cost of those services, which is shifted to a tiny fraction of the population through progressive taxation. As a result, and exactly as in the market for healthcare, the demand for essentially 'free' service increases without limit.
    Moreover, most government expenditures are transfer payments, which arguably have experienced nearly exponential productivity growth over the past 50 years as it takes virtually the same number of labor hours to process checks for $1 trillion as for $1 million.
    Also, as you point out, the growth in 'productivity' in Defense has also increased dramatically.
    The areas of government where productivity has remained stagnant, like education, are still relatively small and not really relevant to the problem of government growth.
    The real problem is in the growth of entitlements, where certain voters have learned that they can force others to pay for services they desire.
    That is the core problem of all democratic systems and has nothing to do with lack of productivity growth in government (although of course it would be less of a problem if we had faster productivity growth overall).
    There is no obvious solution to this problem, except that it will stop when it reaches some natural limit , as in parts of Europe.

  3. CommentedCharles Broming

    I agree with Prof. Rogoff's analysis at the highest level, viz., the service sector's problems with productivity, cost and, therefore, price. I agree as well that we need to change our conversations from exhortations to reduce government spending to conversations about how to deploy government funds more effectively. But, the issue needs to be framed appropriately and the news media needs to observe and report on it. There has been plenty discussion about government spending effectiveness over the decades, but the news media have ignored it. It's complicated, contentious, doesn't offer good sound bites and is, therefore, hard to cover and offers lower returns.

    The fundamental questions that need to be addressed (and probably never answered completely or finally) are, "What is the "right" size of government (at which level)?" and, "Which services do governments provide more effectively and efficiently than the private sector over the long run?"

    The second question can be answered; the tools are available. A credible and reasonable answer to the second question would be a product of an answer to the first question. To argue for reduced spending based on some prior faith in the priority of "limited government" puts the cart before the horse. In point of fact, those who argue for "limited government" have no opponents in America or Western Europe, and I doubt that even the most totalitarian dictators (kings, princes, etc.) believe that "unlimited government" is a possibility, much less an alternative.

  4. CommentedMichael Scheps

    Surprised that Professor Rogoff would be so wrong in his evaluation of Reagan's "starve the beast" philosophy. David Stockman, after leaving the OMB, wrote in his book "The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed", that they failed to understand Congress would not curtail spending in the face of reduced revenue. That, and the Reagan policy of outspending the Soviet's on defense, were the 2 primary reasons that Reagan left office with a large national debt that was not addressed until President Clinton's administration.

      CommentedMichael Scheps

      Mr. Bromberg,

      Thank you for verifying my point. Professor Rogoff wrote- "In many ways, his approach was a great success". I believe that a historical evaluation proves exactly what you stated- "pragmatic aspects of politics, especially re-election and post-congressional employment opportunities, were more important to members of Congress than was Reagan's ideological crusade". Reagan's approach might have been admirable, if that is ones political philosophy, but in reality it didn't, and up to now, hasn't worked.


      CommentedCharles Broming

      Mr. Scheps,

      Prof. Rogoff's account of Reagan's philosophy is accurate. Stockman (in his book and his Fortune magazine article) simply pointed out that the pragmatic aspects of politics, especially re-election and post-congressional employment opportunities, were more important to members of Congress than was Reagan's ideological crusade. Thus, the real, "don't-tax-and-spend" Republicans emerged.

  5. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Central Bank actions had become virtually fiscal in nature and now we have seen that monetary release did not find its way in goods and services, if at all it had it had increased stocks of unused houses, or inventory and piles of commodities from Aluminum to many other forms.

    Uncertainty channelized investments into unproductive ‘investment assets’, which are a parking lot for ‘certainty’ to return, the attractiveness of such assets like commodities, stocks or bonds runs against the unattractiveness of real economy ‘options’ that produce goods and services that get consumed to create jobs. This is now becoming a permanent feature. So we have already a stock waiting to be consumed and then we are venturing into further fiscal stances that would make a push for further debt escalation as there is no shortage of funds but shortage of viable channelizing options into goods and services that create jobs.

    Is the government a better bet for this arrangement to continue in form of government spending that is financed by cheap debt again? Let us take stock of what has already been spent in the last three years and how many net jobs it actually created on a permanent basis.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  6. Portrait of Pingfan Hong

    CommentedPingfan Hong

    "If people want the same level of government services relative to other things that they consume, government spending will take up a larger and larger share of national output over time.": this is not true. Because people want an increasing level of public services relative to other things that they consume, government spending increases its share in the economy over time. Public healthcare is a good example.

  7. CommentedTim Chambers

    Privatization of government services is not the solution. What you advocate is rent extraction from services that are done well enough by government employees. There are far too many examples of companies handling this kind of work that waste enormous sums to raise profits on cost plus ten percent contracts.

    As for improving teacher productivity, it isn't going to happen. Computer programs might be good at finding spelling and grammar errors, but they can't tell a student how to do a better job of researching or elucidating his topic. That is something only a human can do.

    The real problem that we have is that by de-emphasizing manufacturing, we have off-shored the growth of wealth creation that supports the service sector, which simply moves existing wealth around. That wealth, in all too many cases, is not being returned to this country because the companies that create it refuse to pay taxes on it.

    Too many of the "wealth creators" demand a free lunch, and far too many of their current and former employees are being subsidized by the government because their economic circumstances have been so drastically reduced via free-trade agreements with third world countries.

    Neo-liberalism is the problem, not the solution.

  8. CommentedVictor Stern

    I disagree with the diagnosis. Education is not breaking the fisc. Its medical services, where increases in productivity increase demand to no natural boundary. We would all chose to live forever together, if we could.

    Also disagree with application of the "cost desease" concept. A significant portion of growth in the share of services in the economy may be due simply to monetization of services previously rendered within households and communities without exchange of money.

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