As economists we are trained to say that we work to live, we
do not live to work. Yet, as we watch the corrosive effects of long-term
unemployment on our social fabric build we may have to revisit that viewpoint. If
we are not quite ready to cheer make work jobs, we might nonetheless be
thankful for an opportunity like the new fossil fuel economy.
The creative class in America will likewise be buoyed by a
world in which creativity is in ever greater demand. The source of America's well-spring of
creativity and dominance in music, movies, television, social media has been
long discussed and never fully understood. Yet, unless something dramatic
changes, we should expect those trends to continue.
In a world with ever more middle class consumers is a world
in which the returns to innovation accelerate, the killer electronic devices of
the 2020s will have a potential market measured in the billions when they
These two trends are clear. What's less clear is how soon intelligence
will fundamentally change the manufacturing landscape. Cowen writes:
It's not just that Silicon Valley and the Pentagon and our
universities give the United States a big edge with smart machines. The subtler
point is this: The more the world relies on smart machines, the more domestic
wage rates become irrelevant for export prowess. That will help the wealthier
countries, most of all America. This logic works on both sides. America is
using less labor in manufacturing, but China is too, even as its manufacturing
output is rising. The fact that Chinese manufacturing employment is falling
along with ours means that both our higher wages and their lower wages are
becoming less relevant for the location of manufacturing decisions. The less
manufacturing has to do with labor costs and relative wage levels, the greater
the comparative advantage of the United States.
A point which Tyler Cowen and I have never fulled hashed out
is the extent to which productivity gains are endogenous. It's true enough that we can create machines
that will run virtually the entire manufacturing process for us. That's not the issue. The issue is whether
it's cost effective to do so. When labor is cheap, investing in the latest
machines doesn't pay.
What Tyler has to be arguing is that the machines will get
so cheap that fully automated production will be even cheaper than subsistence
wages, for there are many areas where subsistence wages are still paid. I don't
think we are about to hit that point any time soon.
Nonetheless, given the factors currently building the United States as an export powerhouse is no longer wishful thinking. It is my baseline scenario.