One of Matt Yglesias’s commenters offers this concern

I fear we’ll get a society where perhaps 10% of the people will own all the land and capital, and they will hire 60% of the people to work for low but comfortable wages, while 30% will be totally dependent on a welfare and the odd temporary job every now and then.

If this scenario is a real possibility, then the only solution I can imagine is highly progressive taxation and wealth distribution, so that the great masses can afford to employ each other (with restaurant meals and dance lessons).

After offering me a shout-out, Yglesias says

At any rate, I’m not blogging about land use at the moment because I’m hoping to build enthusiasm for a potential book, so let’s focus on the “capital” side of this arrangement. What’s missing from the doom analysis (and this is fresh in my mind since coincidentally I’ve been reading Ricardo) is the “human capital.” Employee compensation accounts for the majority of GDP because the majority of the actual capital available to the economy is inside people’s heads.

I’ll offer my interpretation of the phenomenon. It is decidedly neo-classical.

Redistribution is desirable because it raises the living standard of the person we are redistributing to. However, welfare-reinforcing-the-culture-of-poverty arguments aside, it shouldn’t change the basic structure of pre-tax national income.

In a completely free market economy the share of national income that goes to the various factors of production are determined by their role in production. To the extent human capital has a more important role, human capital will command more of national income. The same is true for physical capital and raw labor power.

However, the rents, to the factors are determined by their reproducibility. That is, how easy is it to make more.

The majority of the rise is living standards for workers occurred because they – the workers – were relatively irreproducible. It takes, according to modern law, 16 years to produce a new worker. Most producers, that is to say parents, are not induced, through higher wages, to produce more workers.

So the following scenario ensues. The economy grows larger and larger. Labor, even raw labor, has some productive role in the economy and so it has a share in this growth. However, the number of laborers is not growing as fast as the economy. Thus, labor’s share of the economic pie grows faster than the total number of laborers and so the share of the economic pie per laborer grows.

What we seem to be facing at the moment is culmination of several forces. I think most economists from Tyler Cowen to David Card agree that the production of human capital has become more constrained, while its role in production is growing.

The result is that the economy is growing, human capital’s share of the economy is growing, but the quantity of human capital is not growing as fast as it could be. Therefore, the slice of the economic pie going to each “bit” of human capital is growing very rapidly. We see this in a rising return to education, technology, general smarts etc.

At the same time are seeing massive growth in the pool of laborers. More laborers from rural China move to the city everyday and economic liberalism marches across South and South East Asia. This radically increases the pool of labor.

Labor is still relatively hard to come by, by historical standards. However, it is not as hard to come by as it once was. Moreover, increases in the return to labor are indeed increasing the supply of labor as higher wages increase the speed at which farm workers leave for the city.

This means that the global economy is growing, the share going to labor is growing slightly slower – because it is being crowded out by human capital – but the size of the labor pool is growing faster and faster. Thus, labor’s slice of the economic pie is barely keeping pace with the size of the labor pool, itself. The result is a stagnant slice per laborer.

Indeed, I think the slice is probably declining in the Western World, so that a person with no knowledge or skills whatsoever, earns less today that he would have 20 years ago.

I would guess that is similar to the  phenomenon the classical economists witnessed. Labor was migrating steadily into the city, drawn by higher wages. To some extent – though less than they envisioned –  increased wages also allowed for larger families. This meant that while the economy was growing, and with it labor’s share, the share per worker was not growing or growing very slowly.

At the same time, capital markets were highly underdeveloped. It was not easy to produce new capital. Capital’s share of the economy was increasing steadily right along with labor. However, the number of capitalists was not increasing. Thus the slice of the economic pie per capitalist was exploding.

This trend reversed itself, mainly as the result of several forces: family size stopped growing, the rural labor pool was exhausted and capital markets opened up, allowing a rapid increase in the number of capitalists and the amount of capital available.

The greatest potential source of relief for low skilled Americans will be exhaustion of the global rural labor force. This will mean primarily a fully industrialized Asia. This will exert itself in one of two ways.

If Asian countries retain their very high savings rate then it will occur as enormous foreign direct investment (FDI) in the United States. Chinese and Indian corporations will set up shop in the United States and bid up the demand for raw US labor. One might be tempted to think that this FDI will only support “skilled jobs” but marginalist thinking suggests not.

As the price of skilled workers rises some tasks will be substituted by unskilled workers. Making predictions about what this will look like is hard, especially since it involves the future. However, an one easy vision is to imagine a world where grocery stores turn into a massive “fresh counters” where all the prep work necessary for your meal is done to order from fresh ingredients. You go home with little premeasured containers that you can combine into the recipe you want as easily as Food Network chefs do.

This is a pampered life for high skilled workers, but its also a world in which unskilled workers can regularly find work capable of supporting their families and an ever increasing standard of living.

Another alternative is for savings in Asian to decline, which would shift the balance of trade and cause at least a temporary surge in manufacturing done in the US. The transition period would be different in this scenario, but the end game likely the same. There would be a bidding up of the returns to capital in the US and rather than FDI, domestic investment would bring about the future.

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