"The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies" by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, published as recently as last January, has been lying half-read on my Kindle desk for some weeks, mainly because its early chapters overlap with much of the technological material I'd referenced already. But a couple of tweets in response to Part 4 (thanks to Michael @mjcavaretta and Patrick @itworks sent me back to reexamine the content. There I found enough interesting thinking to fill a new post. I have to say that I was also hoping that the authors might come to my rescue as I searched for answers to my question above.
The central discussion of the book about the economic effect of advances in technology is couched in terms of bounty and spread. The former is the overall benefit accruing to the economy and the people whose lives are affected. The authors believe this bounty is enormous and growing, although they do admit that traditional economic measures, such as GDP, are no longer adequate. Nonetheless, my gut feel is that technology has, by many measures, improved the lot of humanity, or has the potential to do so. Spread is perhaps more easily quantified: it is the gap in wealth, income, mobility and more between people at the top and bottom of the ladder. And it has been demonstrably growing wider in recent years--which is socially and economically bad news. The authors' question then is whether the growth in bounty can counteract that in spread. Will the rising tide raise all boats, even though the super-yachts may be raised considerably further than the simple rowboats or even the rafts made of society's junk?
The news is bad. The authors report that "between 1983 and 2009, Americans became vastly wealthier overall as the total value of their assets increased. However... the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution actually saw a net decrease in their wealth." Combining this with a second observation that income distribution is moving from a normal (bell) curve towards a power law curve with a long tail of lower incomes, my conclusion is that the negative effect of spread is outpacing the positive lift of bounty. Note finally, that the above discussion is focused on the developed economies. A brief visit to one of the emerging economies should suffice to convince that the inequality there is far greater. The old saw that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer appears increasingly appropriate.
And Brynjolfsson and McAfee do end up agreeing with me in Chapter 11 as they sort through various arguments on the relative importance of bounty and spread. "Instead of being confident that the bounty from technology will more than compensate for the spread it generates, we are instead concerned about something close to the reverse: that the spread could actually reduce the bounty in years to come."
Turning their attention to the main underlying cause, the advance of technology and the possibility of "technological unemployment", they come desperately close to my argument: "there is a floor on how low wages for human labor can go. In turn, that floor can lead to unemployment: people who want to work, but are unable to find jobs. If neither the worker nor any entrepreneur can think of a profitable task that requires that worker's skills and capabilities, then that worker will go unemployed indefinitely. Over history, this has happened to many other inputs to production that were once valuable, from whale oil to horse labor. They are no longer needed in today's economy even at zero price. In other words, just as technology can create inequality, it can also create unemployment. And in theory, this can affect a large number of people, even a majority of the population, and even if the overall economic pie is growing."
But, they instantly--and, in my view, unjustifiably--veer back to the new economic orthodoxy that machines are more likely to complement humans than displace them and then focus on that scenario, suggesting that we must focus on equipping humans for this role through better and different education. While accepting that there are certainly instances where this is true, I see no evidence in recent years that this is the primary scenario we need to address. Only in Chapter 14, do they finally make some "Long-Term Recommendations" that suggest how changes in taxation might be required to rebalance the inequality in income and unemployment that they see eventually emerging. In this they echo both Martin Ford and Tyler Cohen, as we've seen earlier.
But I cannot help but feel this is far too little and far too late. So, what would I suggest? I believe we need some rather counter-intuitive thinking. And that is the long-promised topic of the real Part 5.
Posted March 4, 2014 5:46 AM
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