More on Capital-Biased Technological Change

Print
Friday, 28 December 2012 08:59

Since several people in comments and e-mails raised questions on my earlier post on capital-biased technological change I will try to clarify my point. The original impetus was a Paul Krugman post in which he raised the possibility that changes in technology were causing a redistribution from labor to capital. (He has since written further on the topic.)

My point was to note that this sort of redistribution cannot just be a matter of technology, it also involves a very big role for the laws and norms that make such a redistribution possible. I referred in the earlier post to the Cambridge controversies in the theory of capital. Unfortunately, these debates were sidetracked into a narrow and largely irrelevant discussion of the possibility and likelihood of "re-switching," a story where a production technique flips from being less capital intensive to more capital intensive as the interest rate rises or falls.

From my perspective the main takeaway from this debate is that there is no measure of capital that is independent of its price. How do we compare a steel mill, the latest supercomputer from IBM, the software produced by Google and the method for producing a lifesaving cancer drug whose patent is owned by Pfizer? Are we going to weigh each one, takes its volume? There is no measure of capital apart from its price.

This is in contrast to labor, the other part of the technology story. I would not want to minimize the problems of aggregating labor either (is an hour of a brain surgeon's time the same thing as an hour of dishwasher's time?), but at least there is something physically present that we can identify. What is the physical presence of a software or pharmaceutical patent? Yet, these items are hugely important in the modern return to capital story since a very large chunk of profits is earned by software companies, drug companies or other corporations that profit primarily based on their ownership of intellectual property.

Intellectual property serves a social purpose. It is a way to provide an incentive for innovation and creative work. However it is certainly not the only way. An enormous amount of research is funded publicly, as with the NIH, and also through universities and non-profits, and from private companies not seeking to profit from patent or copyright protection. It is far from clear that patents and copyrights are the most efficient mechanisms for supporting innovation and creative work. If our current intellectual property regime also has distributional consequences that we consider bad, then that would be a serious strike against it.

But the basic point is that if we are concerned that the economy is leading to a situation where an ever large share of the gains from growth are going to capital, we should not imagine that this is just the result of technological change. It was the result of conscious policy choices. As we say here at CEPR, money does not fall up.