In his New York Times Magazine column this week, Adam Davidson writes about the challenges of measuring productivity in today's economy. Here's an excerpt.
Like a lot of accountants, Jason Blumer never really wanted to be an accountant; he wanted to play guitar in a hair-metal band. But like most guys who want to play guitar in a hair-metal band, Blumer eventually realized that there wasn't much money in touring bars and being paid in beer-smeared $20 bills. So he changed gears and decided to follow his dad into what seemed like one of the more steady businesses around. After college, he bought some suits, joined a midsize firm in South Carolina and processed his clients' payroll and tax returns. He billed them by the hour. He hated every second of it.
Blumer, 42, wanted to infuse a bit more rock 'n' roll into his industry. So when he eventually took over his father's small firm, he made his own rules: There would be no time sheets, no dress code and, most radical of all, no billable hours. He was convinced, in fact, that the billable hour was part of a series of mistakes that took all the fun out of his profession. To him, it seemed like a relic of a dying economic age and one that was depriving his industry of billions in profit....
So he identified a niche — creative professionals who struggled to manage their finances as their start-ups became mature businesses — and he endeavored to help his clients make (and save) enough money that they would gladly pay a significant fee without asking about the hours it took him to figure out what to do. Blumer has been so successful in his approach that he has become a leading voice among a national band of accountants who call themselves the Cliff Jumpers. Many Cliff Jumpers have abandoned the traditional bill-by-the-hour approach to focus on noncommodity accounting solutions for specific client groups. One focuses on entrepreneurs hoping to sell their new businesses; several work with people who are terrified about starting a small business.
Perhaps without realizing it, the Cliff Jumpers are at the forefront of one of the great challenges of modern economics. Measuring productivity is central to economic policy — it's especially crucial in the decisions made by the Federal Reserve — but we are increasingly flying blind. It's relatively easy to figure out if steel companies can make a ton of steel more efficiently than in the past (they can, by a lot), but we have no idea how to measure the financial value of ideas and the people who come up with them. "Compared with the mid-1900s, goods production is not as important a part of our economy, but we continue to devote about 90 percent of our statistical resources to measuring it," says Barry Bosworth, a Brookings Institution economist who is a leading thinker on productivity in the service sector.