On getting more done

The White House conference on productivity - just ending in Washington - is one more reminder of how much Americans like to be enterprising and productive. Give Americans a problem and they'll come up with a roomful of solutions. Remind them that the rate of growth in their phenomenal productivity has dropped off over the years, as has been the case, and they'll come up with a conference to find out how to reverse that decline.

What needs to be kept in focus as the delegates produce their various working papers for future growth is that American workers still are the most productive workers in the world. According to analysis by the Houston-based American Productivity Center, the United States, based on output per worker, is well ahead of its two major industrial competitors, West Germany and Japan.

However, appropriate steps are required to keep the US a leader in world productivity. During the 1970s the rate of growth of US productivity dropped. This troubles economists.

Has that falloff in the rate of growth ended? Some indicators suggest that may be the case. During the first six months of this year, US productivity grew at a rate of around 4 percent. That is not equal to the higher growth rate following the recession of 1974-75, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Moreover, manufacturing productivity grew at a rate of 8.2 percent between January and July, the highest rate since the early 1970s, with the exception of 1975-1976.

As many delegates in Washington have recognized this week, there is much that Americans can do to increase US productivity. The inventiveness and enterprise of individual Americans will most ensure a steady gain in productivity. Often, after all, the great breakthroughs in US technology and manufacturing have come about in unexpected ways. That is what happened to the US auto industry, for example, when car-makers, back in the mid-1940s, recognized the untapped market for cars on the part of millions of women who had entered the labor force during World War II.

At the same time, government and industry need to remove impediments to innovation and productivity.

Corporate officials should be open to more streamlined production methods, while utilizing robots and other modern manufacturing processes. Tax laws need to be even further refined, to encourage savings, as opposed to consumption. That might mean, for example, further liberalizing individual retirement accounts, or taxing consumption, rather than savings. Federal rules and regulations that burden businesses with unnecessary paperwork need to be scrapped.

Fiscal and monetary policy should be better managed.

The gist of this week's productivity conference, then, seems clear: All Americans - industry and government officials and the man and woman on the street - can look within themselves for the adventure and creativity that inevitably lead to new ideas.

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