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Productivity and Progress

Posted By Don Boudreaux On June 22, 2011 @ 6:33 am In Growth,Innovation,Myths and Fallacies,Seen and Unseen,The Economy,Work | Comments Disabled

In today’s Wall Street Journal [1], Russ explains that another name for the phenomenon that some people call “structural issues” is “progress.”  Here are key paragraphs:

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.

Somehow, new jobs get created to replace the old ones. Despite losing millions of jobs to technology and to trade, even in a recession we have more total jobs than we did when the steel and auto and telephone and food industries had a lot more workers and a lot fewer machines.

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.

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