In a 1990 paper, “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive,” Baumol argued that the level of entrepreneurial ambition in a country is essentially fixed over time, and that what determines a nation’s entrepreneurial output is the incentive structure that governs and directs entrepreneurial efforts between “productive” and “unproductive” endeavors.
we and others have documented a pervasive decline in the rate of new firm formation during the last three decades and an acceleration in that decline since 2000. In fact, we found that by 2009 the rate of business closures exceeded the rate of business births for the first time in the three-decades-plus history of our data. This decline in startup formation has occurred in each state and nearly all metropolitan areas, and in each broad industrial sector, including high tech. There has also been a slowdown in activity of high-growth firms, the relatively small number of businesses that account for the lion’s share of net job gains. All of this points to a slowdown in the growth of productive entrepreneurship.
What about the other kind of entrepreneurship? Do we also see a rise in unproductive entrepreneurship, as Baumol theorized?
We don’t have a smoking gun to confirm this hypothesis, but there surely is smoke, and it comes in two forms: rising profits, especially those earned by the largest businesses in the economy, and suggestive evidence of an increase in efforts to shape the rules of the game. This pattern is consistent with the rise of economic rents and rent-seeking behavior.