The Importance of Potential GDP in the Long Run
The neoclassical perspective on macroeconomics holds that, in the long run, the economy will fluctuate around its potential GDP and its natural rate of unemployment. This reading begins with two building blocks of neoclassical economics: (1) the size of the economy is determined by potential GDP, and (2) wages and prices will adjust in a flexible manner so that the economy will adjust back to its potential GDP level of output.
The key policy implication is this: Should the government focus more on long-term growth and on controlling inflation than on worrying about recession or cyclical unemployment? This focus on long-run growth rather than the short-run fluctuations in the business cycle means that neoclassical economics is more useful for long-run macroeconomic analysis and Keynesian economics is more useful for analyzing the macroeconomic short run. Let’s consider the two neoclassical building blocks in turn, and how they can be embodied in the aggregate demand/aggregate supply model.
Over the long run, the level of potential GDP determines the size of real GDP. When economists refer to “potential GDP” they are referring to that level of output that can be achieved when all resources (land, labor, capital, and entrepreneurial ability) are fully employed. While the unemployment rate in labor markets will never be zero, full employment in the labor market refers to zero cyclical unemployment. There will still be some level of unemployment due to frictional or structural unemployment, but when the economy is operating with zero cyclical unemployment, the economy is said to be at the natural rate of unemployment or at full employment.
Actual or real GDP is benchmarked against the potential GDP to determine how well the economy is performing. Growth in GDP can be explained by increases and investment in physical capital and human capital per person as well as advances in technology. Physical capital per person refers to the amount and kind of machinery and equipment available to help people get work done. Compare, for example, your productivity in typing a term paper on a typewriter to working on your laptop with word processing software. Clearly, you will be able to be more productive using word processing software. The technology and level of capital of your laptop and software has increased your productivity. More broadly, the development of GPS technology and Universal Product Codes (those barcodes on every product we buy) has made it much easier for firms to track shipments, tabulate inventories, and sell and distribute products. These two technological innovations, and many others, have increased a nation’s ability to produce goods and services for a given population. Likewise, increasing human capital involves increasing levels of knowledge, education, and skill sets per person through vocational or higher education. Physical and human capital improvements with technological advances will increase overall productivity and, thus, GDP.
To see how these improvements have increased productivity and output at the national level, we should examine evidence from the United States. The United States experienced significant growth in the twentieth century due to phenomenal changes in infrastructure, equipment, and technological improvements in physical capital and human capital. The population more than tripled in the twentieth century, from 76 million in 1900 to over 300 million in 2012. The human capital of modern workers is far higher today because the education and skills of workers have risen dramatically. In 1900, only about one-eighth of the U.S. population had completed high school and just one person in 40 had completed a four-year college degree. By 2010, more than 87% of Americans had a high school degree and over 29% had a four-year college degree as well. The average amount of physical capital per worker has grown dramatically. The technology available to modern workers is extraordinarily better than a century ago: cars, airplanes, electrical machinery, smartphones, computers, chemical and biological advances, materials science, health care—the list of technological advances could run on and on. More workers, higher skill levels, larger amounts of physical capital per worker, and amazingly better technology, and potential GDP for the U.S. economy has clearly increased a great deal since 1900.
This growth has fallen below its potential GDP and, at times, has exceeded its potential. For example from 2008 to 2009, the U.S. economy tumbled into recession and remains below its potential. At other times, like in the late 1990s, the economy ran at potential GDP—or even slightly ahead. Figure shows the actual data for the increase in nominal GDP since 1960. The slightly smoother line shows the potential GDP since 1960 as estimated by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Most economic recessions and upswings are times when the economy is 1–3% below or above potential GDP in a given year. Clearly, short-run fluctuations around potential GDP do exist, but over the long run, the upward trend of potential GDP determines the size of the economy.
In the aggregate demand/aggregate supply model, potential GDP is shown as a vertical line. Neoclassical economists who focus on potential GDP as the primary determinant of real GDP argue that the long-run aggregate supply curve is located at potential GDP—that is, the long-run aggregate supply curve is a vertical line drawn at the level of potential GDP, as shown in Figure. A vertical LRAS curve means that the level of aggregate supply (or potential GDP) will determine the real GDP of the economy, regardless of the level of aggregate demand. Over time, increases in the quantity and quality of physical capital, increases in human capital, and technological advancements shift potential GDP and the vertical LRAS curve gradually to the right. This gradual increase in an economy’s potential GDP is often described as a nation’s long-term economic growth.