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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Can Thomas Friedman Hyperconnect to His Own Columns?

Can Thomas Friedman Hyperconnect to His Own Columns?

Sunday, 12 January 2014 09:27

That's what readers everywhere are asking after seeing Thomas Friedman's column touting the new world in which technology will not only replace less-skilled workers, but will also make workers with considerable skills redundant. This view is 180 degrees at odds with the view often expressed in Thomas Friedman's columns that we are facing a period of serious scarcity due to the burden of supporting a massive generation of retired baby boomers (for example here and here). If robots are going to make it so that we don't need any workers then we should be delighted that so many baby boomers are retiring since this will at least open up some jobs for young people. (Of course we could all just work fewer hours, but that is far too simple a solution for big thinkers.)

While the prospect of a huge surge in productivity growth described in Friedman's piece would be great news (we could easily feed and house the world and stop global warming) there is no evidence of it in the data. Productivity growth has averaged just 1.3 percent annually over the last four years, far below the growth rate of the prior decade and even below the 1.5 percent growth rate in the years of the productivity slowdown from 1973 to 1995.

Note; Productivity numbers corrected, thanks LSTB.

Comments (6)Add Comment
Experts Predict Robots Will Wipe Out Village Idiots
written by Last Mover, January 12, 2014 11:05

One thing for sure, either way it shakes out - not enough workers to support non-workers, or too many efficient robots that take jobs - free market competition of the Earth-is-Flat variety will certainly drive resources to their highest valued use as Friedman preaches regularly.

In particular, as Friedman says, now that high tech robototry has become a substitute for labor rather than the tried and true complement to labor it once was, the first thing to expect is ...

... village idiots of economic journalism who embarrass themselves regularly with obvious contradictions will be the first to be replaced with fact and fallacy check robots and sent to assisted-critical-thinking homes for the logic challenged to determine if they are permanently structurally unemployable.
written by Paul, January 12, 2014 5:25
Dean are you in danger of being accused of the "lump of labor" argument. And if so, what would you respond?
People always made ad hominem arguments
written by Dean, January 12, 2014 7:42
don't know if people want to accuse me of the lump of labor argument. if they do, I would suggest they think clearly about what they are trying to say rather than try to just dismiss an argument they don't like with a silly cliche.
Labor Productivity Surge?
written by LSTB, January 13, 2014 7:23
Dean, which series are you using? When I look at labor productivity in the total business sector (PR84006091) from Q3 to Q3 from 1973-1995, I get an average growth rate of 1.6 percent, but for 2009-2013, I get 1.8 percent. For the prior decade, 2004-2013, I get 1.7 percent.
written by Alex Bollinger, January 13, 2014 9:38
@Paul: Friedman is literally making a lump of labor argument: robots are going to take all the jobs and there will be no work left for the sacks of meat. There's no reason someone can disagree with the substance of that argument and *also* point out that it directly contradicts another argument Friedman likes to make.

@Last Mover: There already is a robot capable of doing Friedman's job!

written by Taryn Hart, January 13, 2014 4:04
> While the prospect of a huge surge in productivity growth described in Friedman's piece would be great news (we could easily feed and house the world and stop global warming) there is no evidence of it in the data.

Your assumption that increased productivity would be used to solve common problems rather than enrich the 1% is cute. Economists always assume this - all growth is good and they usually look at GDP. However, growth that benefits mainly the wealthy creates power imbalances with political effects. In theory, all growth should be good because it can be redistributed. But in practice, growth that increases inequality creates a power imbalance that allows the wealthy to further increase inequality. As it stands, productivity increases would only further benefit the wealthy. Economists lack of appreciation of the political economy is always so disheartening. Look, Ireland is recovering. The other side only says "well, not enough." No one pays attention to the fact that those increases in Irish productivity are creating inequalities that will deeply infect Irish politics and make the political system work to further benefit the wealthy.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.