“It is said that every life has its roses and thorns; there seemed, however, to have been a misadventure or mistake in Stephen’s case, whereby somebody else had become possessed of his roses, and he had become possessed of somebody else’s thorns in addition to his own.” (Charles Dickens, Hard Times)
Stephen’s case resonates with millions across the globe who struggle with poverty, sordid working conditions and unemployment while the more ‘privileged’ sections of society enjoy the luxuries and higher living standards endowed by technological progress and long-run economic growth.
Proponents of the “thorns” argument suggest that economic growth and technological progress have been accompanied by a widening gap between the rich and the poor – with the rich becoming richer by leveraging on their greater access to technology and the increased productivity it entails and the poor becoming increasingly unemployable and replaceable by machines thus, sinking deeper into poverty. In other words, while the rich enjoy all the “roses”, the poor suffer the “thorns” of industrial advancement.
While technology’s contribution to economic growth is undisputed, its impact on working class welfare is a subject of great debate. While aggregate economic estimators dating back to the first industrial revolution show increases in real wages, employment and living standards (higher literacy and decreased mortality rates), these measures paint an optimistic picture that fails to reflect the situation of those that face the unintended costs of progress.
According to Erik Brynjolfsson, author of The Second Machine Age, “technology is the main driver of recent increases in inequality.” If this is indeed the case, then the perpetuation of technology dichotomously facilitates the macroeconomic goal of economic growth while hindering that of equitable income distribution. If one regards equity in income distribution and job displacement as being indicative of social welfare, then in today’s technology driven economy there exists an opportunity cost between growth and welfare. With Artificial Intelligence transitioning from fiction to reality this argument against technology is rapidly gaining ground. It is however, a simplistic argument that fails to take into account the historical trends in industrial and technological development.
History is testimony that every technological breakthrough has rewarded some and punished some. Right from the printing press to assembly lines, technology has consistently made it possible for capital to replace labor. While this has increased productivity it has also left masses unemployed and depressed. Even so, comparisons across periods show that the average man is better off today than he was in the past. Thus, the gloom that settled on the masses owing to technological substitution seems simply to be the “pain” associated with any major transitory or transformative growth period. Why this pain is experienced less by the rich than the poor might just be a matter of access. Those with greater access to resources and information are more easily able to make the transition to the obligatory increase in skill level. Holding other factors such as wealth inheritance constant, the difference between the rich and poor then simply translates to the difference between the skilled and the unskilled in the modern economy. Over time, as average skill level increases, the overall welfare also increases. It would then seem likely, that efficiency and equity are not trade-offs but economic consequences of growth that manifest over different lengths of time. Why some individuals take longer to catch up to the increased level of efficiency than others may be a matter of their social context or the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest.’ The increases in inequality are therefore more rightly attributable to discrepancies in worker skill-sets than to technological progress.
In the modern era, with technology growing at an unprecedented rate, the time-constraint on skill upgradation is significantly tighter. As a result, bridging the income gap is becoming increasingly difficult. For those on the bottom-most rung of the social ladder, average skill and efficiency requirements of the market are increasing at a much faster rate than they are capable of catching up with. Owing to the autonomy of human ingenuity, technological progress cannot be reined in or slowed down. A plausible alternative is therefore, to increase the pace of skill upgradation through easy access to education and training without discrimination. While perfectly equitable income distribution is a theoretical ideal, a real world equivalent would entail policy decisions aimed at minimizing the “thorns” and consequently the “pain” that is an inevitable corollary of transformative economic growth.
This article has been written by Lubna Akhtar an aspiring Economist and a student at Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics class 2018!