The Importance of Potential GDP in the Long Run
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 an economy can achieve 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, economists say that the economy is at the natural rate of unemployment or at full employment.
Economists benchmark actual or real GDP against the potential GDP to determine how well the economy is performing. As explained in Economic Growth, we can explain GDP growth 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 2016. 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. In 2014, 40% of working-age Americans had a four-year college degree. 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 real 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, we show potential GDP 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, we draw the long-run aggregate supply curve as a vertical line at the level of potential GDP, as Figure shows. A vertical LRAS curve means that the level of aggregate supply (or potential GDP) will determine the economy's real GDP, 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. Economists often describe this gradual increase in an economy's potential GDP as a nation's long-term economic growth.