Joe Nocera makes an important point very badly in his column today. He contrasts a sharp reduction in poverty in Brazil over the last dozen years with continued high unemployment in the United States. Nocera then notes Brazil's recent growth slowdown, which he attributes to slow productivity growth. He then notes the rapid growth in the United States in the third quarter and continually rising productivity and concludes that growth may not be the most important goal of the economy.
While the point is well taken, Nocera discussion of growth in the United States and Brazil is completely wrong. While growth in Brazil has not been especially strong for a developing country, it did not manage to achieve its reductions in poverty without growth. According to the IMF, Brazil's growth has averaged 3.5 percent in the years from 2002-2013. This is far from the rates that countries like Thailand and China have maintained, but it is very far from zero. It is unlikely that Brazil could have accomplished anywhere near as much poverty reduction if its growth had been zero.
In the case of the United States, high unemployment is directly connected to slow growth. While we had one quarter of relatively good growth (4.0 percent is not especially strong for an economy recovering from a severe downturn), economic growth has generally been weak in this recovery. In the years 2010-2012 the growth rate averaged just 2.4 percent, which is roughly the same as the economy's potential growth rate. This means that the economy was making up almost none of the ground lost in the downturn. Insofar as we were able to achieve reductions in the unemployment rate it was the result of lower than normal productivity growth and people dropping out of the labor force.
By contrast, in the three years following the 1974-75 recession, growth averaged 5.2 percent. In the three years after the 1981-82 recession, growth averaged 5.4 percent. There is no reason to believe that if we saw faster growth we would not see more rapid reductions in unemployment. The problem with the third quarter growth figure was that it has not been sustained. If I'm driving across country I get there more quickly if I drive 70 MPH than if I drive 50 MPH. But it doesn't make much difference if I drive 70 MPH for just 10 minutes. Nocera seems to think that it should.