The Causes of Wealth Inequality (4): Technology

[T]he diffusion of computers and related technology in the early 1980s steadily increased the demand for skilled workers relative to less-skilled workers, driving up the wages and incomes of more-educated workers and depressing the wages and incomes of less educated workers…

However, the technological explanation removed policy, politics, and power from the discussion of inequality, by attributing rising economic concentration to “technological progress,” a force that could be resisted only at our peril. (source, source)

Indeed, taken in isolation, this explanation obscures more than it reveals. To the extent that it reflects reality – and I think to some extent it does – we’ll still have to ask ourselves why there’s such a wide and growing distance between people with and without skills: why can’t we educate more people so that they can enjoy the wage premium of high-tech labor? Inequality isn’t just the outcome of technology but of choices regarding education, personal ones but also social and political ones.

And there’s another problem with the technological explanation of income inequality. It’s undoubtedly true that higher levels of technology increase demand for higher skilled people, and hence increases their wages (and vice versa for lower skilled people). When you combine this with the disappearance of a high number of jobs at the lower end of the wage sprectrum that are automated and replaced by computers, you end up with a strong push towards more inequality. However, this can’t explain the relatively large increase in income inequality in the U.S. and the U.K. when compared to other countries that are equally technologically advanced.

And neither can it explain why inequality is so top-heavy, in other words why the increase in income is concentrated in a tiny minority of individuals (the top 1% in the U.S.) whose skills aren’t that much different from those just below in the income distribution, if at all. Alex Tabarrok offers an interesting explanation of the fact that income inequality seems to be driven by very high earnings in the very top of the distribution. It also has something to do with technology, but not necessarily with skills:

J.K. Rowling is the first author in the history of the world to earn a billion dollars. … Why? Consider Homer, he told great stories but he could earn no more in a night than say 50 people might pay for an evening’s entertainment. Shakespeare did a little better. The Globe theater could hold 3000 and unlike Homer, Shakespeare didn’t have to be at the theater to earn. … By selling books Tolkien could sell to hundreds of thousands, even millions of buyers in a year … And books were cheaper to produce than actors which meant that Tolkien could earn a greater share of the revenues than did Shakespeare … Rowling has the leverage of the book but also the movie, the video game, and the toy. And globalization, both economic and cultural, means that Rowling’s words, images, and products are translated, transmitted and transported everywhere …

Rowling’s success brings with it inequality. Time is limited and people want to read the same books that their friends are reading so book publishing has a winner-take all component. Thus, greater leverage brings greater inequality. The average writer’s income hasn’t gone up much in the past thirty years but today, for the first time ever, a handful of writers can be multi-millionaires and even billionaires. The top pulls away from the median.

The same forces that have generated greater inequality in writing – the leveraging of intellect, the declining importance of physical labor in the production of value, cultural and economic globalization – are at work throughout the economy. Thus, if you really want to understand inequality today you must first understand Harry Potter.

More on inequality.

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