RQ | Baumol Disease Index

In his excellent take on why Rohit Sharma’s 264 is bad for cricket, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha writes about the Baumol’s Cost Disease. This phenomenon, which was first described by William Baumol and William Bowen in the 1960s, describes the increase in cost of labour in industries that have seen little productivity. This has to do with an increase in productivity in other sectors which pushes up the clearing price of labour, which increases the costs of industries that have seen no improvements in productivity.

Based on this, we can construct an index on how industrialised an economy is, which I’m going to christen “Baumol Disease Index”. The basic idea is to pick a sector that is likely to be unaffected by productivity changes over the long term, and look at the median salary of workers in that sector in different countries and across different points in time. This can help us compare the relative levels of industrialisation and productivity in different countries, and in the same country over time.

In order to construct this index, we will take into account one sector which has a lot of “human input” and is unlikely to see much improvement in productivity thanks to mechanisation. My first choice for this was for employees of a company like McDonalds (taking off on The Economist’s Big Mac Index) but then that sector is not that insulated from greater productivity.

We could use the original example that Baumol and Bowen used, which is performing arts, but then performing arts is a winner takes all market – Iron Maiden will be able to command much higher ticket prices compared to the local orchestra thanks to their history and brand and perception of quality. So performing arts is not a great example, either.

Another good choice would be government bureaucrats, since their work is unlikely to be much affected by productivity. But then we’ve had some computerisation and that must have increased some productivity, and ability to be productive and willingness to be productive don’t always go hand in hand!

What about drivers? Despite the efforts towards development of driverless cars, these are unlikely to really take off in the next couple of decades or so, and so we can assume that productivity will remain broadly constant. The other advantage of drivers is that while salaries are tricky to measure (and we need to depend on surveys for those, with mostly unreliable results), taxi fares in different cities are public information, and it is not hard to separate such fares out into cost of fuel, cost of car and cost of driver’s time. This way, measurement of an average taxi driver’s income in different cities and countries, and at different points in time, should not be really difficult.

So, I hereby propose the Baumol Disease Index. It is the per month pre-tax expected income for a driver in a particular city after taking into account costs of fuel and car. This number is going to be imputed from taxi prices. And is going to be a measure of general levels of productivity and industrialisation in an economy. Sounds good?

And while we are on the topic of indices, you should read this excellent leader in last week’s The Economist on the profusion of indices. And since we have a profusion anyway, adding this one additional index shouldn’t hurt! And this one (Baumol Disease Index) measures something that is not measured by too many other indices, and is simple to calculate!