Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Innovations are good for the economy

Russell Roberts, an economist at George Mason, has a column today trying to explain to President Obama why innovations in technology don't mean that we should have higher unemployment. He starts off with a great anecdote from Milton Friedman.
The story goes that Milton Friedman was once taken to see a massive government project somewhere in Asia. Thousands of workers using shovels were building a canal. Friedman was puzzled. Why weren't there any excavators or any mechanized earth-moving equipment? A government official explained that using shovels created more jobs. Friedman's response: "Then why not use spoons instead of shovels?"

That story came to mind last week when President Obama linked technology to job losses. "There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers," he said. "You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don't go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you're using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate."
Roberts goes on to remind the historically illiterate that this is a trend that we've seen for centuries. Following Obama's logic, barely anyone should be employed today as we've moved a pre-industrial society to the technologically advanced and productive economy we have today. Of course, the innovations that we have seen in the past century have made life better and cheaper for consumers.
But should we call this progress? In a sense it sounds like a deal with the devil. Replace workers with machines in the name of lower costs. Profits rise. Repeat. It's a wonder unemployment is only 9.1%. Shouldn't the economy put people ahead of profits?

Well, it does. The savings from higher productivity don't just go to the owners of the textile factory or the mega hen house who now have lower costs of doing business. Lower costs don't always mean higher profits. Or not for long. Those lower costs lead to lower prices as businesses compete with each other to appeal to consumers.

The result is a higher standard of living for consumers. The average worker has to work fewer and fewer hours to earn enough money to buy a dozen eggs or a pair of shoes or a flat-screen TV or a new car that's safer and gets better mileage than the cars of yesteryear. That higher standard of living comes from technology. It isn't just the rich who get cheaper TVs and cars, plus the convenience of using an ATM at midnight.
Think of what even the poor can afford today that previously were luxuries. The average poor person today, as another GMU professor, Walter Williams explains, has possessions that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.
In 1971, only about 32 percent of all Americans enjoyed air conditioning in their homes. By 2001, 76 percent of poor people had air conditioning. In 1971, only 43 percent of Americans owned a color television; in 2001, 97 percent of poor people owned at least one. In 1971, 1 percent of American homes had a microwave oven; in 2001, 73 percent of poor people had one. Forty-six percent of poor households own their homes. Only about 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. The average poor American has more living space than the average non-poor individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens and other European cities.

Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars. Seventy-eight percent of the poor have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception; and one-third have an automatic dishwasher.
And all these new technologies lead to new jobs. And Obama is just portraying his own ignorance and biases in his attempt at an explanation of why unemployment is persisting.
Why do new jobs get created? When it gets cheaper to make food and clothing, there are more resources and people available to create new products that didn't exist before. Fifty years ago, the computer industry was tiny. It was able to expand because we no longer had to have so many workers connecting telephone calls. So many job descriptions exist today that didn't even exist 15 or 20 years ago. That's only possible when technology makes workers more productive.

It's true, there are some structural issues in the labor market. New jobs are being created but not at the usual pace and not fast enough to soak up the unemployed. But President Obama is wrong to blame innovation. A bigger problem is housing, where hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs. The source of that problem isn't technology but an over-reaching housing policy and distorted finance. The solution is to let the housing market clear—let interest rates rise, stop subsidizing mortgages, and clean up the foreclosure mess. That would let housing starts return to something like normal.

The other challenge is simply confidence. Businesses aren't hiring because they're uneasy about the future. There's no easy way to instill confidence, but we know how to kill it—create uncertainty about taxes and regulations. Reducing that uncertainty would certainly help.
Unfortunately for the country, the policies that Obama supports are the ones keeping the economy from growing. As long as he and the Democrats persist wearing their ideological blinders, the economy will be hobbled as it tries to limp along on the road to prosperity.