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Productivity gains

One of the most important trends under way in the United States these days may also be one of the most overlooked, as least on the part of the general public: The US appears to be on the verge of achieving remarkable new gains in economic productivity. If the analysts are correct, that could add up to significant increases in the gross national product - as well as a rising standard of living for millions of Americans.

The expectations for a new spurt in productivity - barring any unexpected adverse domestic or international factors - are increasingly widespread in US business and academic circles. Many economists now believe that increases in output per work-hour in the nonfarm sector could run as high as 3 percent or more a year during the rest of the decade.

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That would contrast sharply with annual increases of 2 percent or so for the US during the early-to-mid 1970s, and little or basically flat growth from the late 1970s to the early 1980s.

Such a turnaround in productivity - and 3 percent or more growth a year would add up to just that - would put the US economy back to its pattern of productivity growth registered during the two decades after World War II. Back then productivity gains averaged 3 percent or more a year.

What's happening to result in such a propitious circumstance? A number of factors, all coming together at once.

Elements included are a slightly aging and more experienced work force; more modest wage demands at a time of relatively low inflation (compared with the double-digit inflation rates of the late 1970s); less confrontation and more cooperation between management and industry; and startling new breakthroughs in the use of robotics and other technological innovations in the manufacturing process.

There are some pitfalls. Continuing federal budget deficits, for example.

Investment dollars needed for capital improvements in the private sector could instead be diverted to finance federal deficits.

That is why a deficit reduction plan is so important.

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Still, the prospects for productivity gains look very good.

Americans need to be aware of the possibilities. After all, in the final analysis increases in output translate back to the efforts of each individual worker.

As workers realize what stepped-up output can mean in terms of greater national and individual prosperity, they will be led to work all the more diligently and intelligently.

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