Our Automatic Assumptions about Automation

Senator and likely presidential hopeful Marco Rubio (R-FL) appeared on last Tuesday’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, promoting his new book and weathering an endless stream of jokes about his home state of Florida. While the discussion covered a range of policy ground, we wanted to highlight one comment by Senator Rubio that showed an all too common misunderstanding of innovation and automation.

Rubio said, “The concern I have about the minimum wage increase is that we have been told by the CBO and independent analysts that it will cost certain jobs. And that happens when some businesses will decide that well, you’ve now made our employees more expensive than machines so we’re going to automate. So in 5-10 years it’s going to happen anyway but this will accelerate this process, when you go to a fast food restaurant it will not be a person taking your order, there will be a touchscreen there that you will order from and when you get your order it will be right. [uneasy laughter] But the point is, if you make that person now more expensive than that new technology, they’re going … Read the rest

Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis

Developing Countries Need Robots Too

Ask any economist why some countries are poor and some countries are rich, and they will probably answer, “productivity”. Essentially, this means that people in rich countries are rich because they are able to create more wealth with less effort. But how do they do this? One of the primary ways is through better technology.

Unfortunately, instead of being recognized for its contribution to wealth, better technology is all too often demonized as a threat to employment, particularly in low-income countries without social safety nets. Intuitively, people care more about the jobs and income streams that already exist than the potential future savings from automating their jobs–a bird in hand, as they say. But a new paper by Mehmet Ugur and Arup Mitra of the University of Greenwich shows that even in very poor countries, technology is far less threatening than it may appear.

We have argued here before that robots are not taking our jobs: in the long run on a macro level productivity increases have no relationship with either the total number of people employed or with the level of unemployment. This is because when automation or … Read the rest


Immigrant STEM Workers Increase Everyone’s Wages

We’ve posted recently about how our current immigration policy is hurting Silicon Valley. But when the United States lets in more immigrants, what happens? Often it’s not what you would expect.

A new NBER paper by economists at the University of California Davis and Colgate University studies the effect of skilled H1-B immigrants in STEM occupations on more than 200 cities across the country. In cities with more STEM immigrants, wages for college-educated workers went up 7-8 percentage points, wages for non-college-educated workers went up about half as much, and there was no significant effect on employment.

Why this counterintuitive result? Economics 101 says that when the supply of something grows, the price should decrease, not increase. As is too often true, however, Economics 101 in this case tells us very little about the real world. Figuring out cause and effect in many types of markets, particularly labor markets, is tough because economies are not as simple as the textbook models might have you believe.

What actually happens is that when immigrants enter an economy, they do more than just offer their labor at a (potentially) lower price. They increase … Read the rest


New Government Report Confirms Benefits of Digital Trade

The digital economy has been a major boon to U.S. domestic and international trade, as is documented by a new report by the United States International Trade Commission entitled Digital Trade in the U.S. and Global Economies (summary here). And even though the report shows important benefits from digital trade, those benefits are likely understated. This is because the report limited its analysis to “digitally intensive” sectors, which means that its numbers exclude contributions from firms that only use digital trade as a smaller part of their business.

Still, digital trade has made quite an impact: the report estimates that digital trade has raised real U.S. GDP by $517.1-$710.7 billion (3.4−4.8 percent) by increasing productivity and lowering the costs of trade. By raising GDP, digital trade increased average wages, and the increased wages likely contributed to increased employment by as much as 2.4 million jobs.

Within digitally intensive industries (and likely within many non-digitally intensive industries, although the report focused on the former), the internet has come to play a major role in everyday commerce. Firms in these industries sell nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of goods and services … Read the rest


How America’s Manufacturing Job Loss Outpaces Other Leading Industrialized Countries

In July 2014, ITIF’s Stephen Ezell testified before the Senate Finance Committee regarding the importance of manufacturing to America’s economy and the role that U.S. trade and technology policy plays in supporting American manufacturing. As part of his testimony, Ezell cited data describing the rapid decline of U.S. manufacturing employment to demonstrate the severity of the challenges faced by America’s manufacturing industries. For the reality is that, particularly since 2000, America’s manufacturing sector has been in a steep decline, with job losses outpacing those in many peer countries.

Following the hearing, Marc Levinson, a Section Research Manager with the Congressional Research Service, produced a report countering some of the data in Ezell’s testimony, and suggesting that there is not a clear cause for alarm regarding employment losses in the American manufacturing sector. However, Levinson’s account does not fully present all of the facts and only succeeds in further muddying this important policy debate.

One critique Levinson makes is charging Ezell with bias in selecting base years, which can have a sizable impact on analytical results. Levinson presents data using the years 1991 to 2000 and then the years from 2001 … Read the rest


Worry About Slow Productivity Growth, Not Fast Productivity Growth

U.S. productivity growth is stagnating, and if the trend continues it could have a drastic impact on the U.S. economy. Without increasing productivity, the only way for a country to get richer is by working more or borrowing more. Furthermore, productivity is a crucial part of international competitiveness, because it is only by increasing our productivity that we can compete with other countries on cost.

A recent BLS news release does a good job of showing the worrying trends. Productivity growth has been abnormally low since approximately 2006, plummeting through the Great Recession, recovering slightly immediately afterward, and slowing considerably since 2010.

The first graph below (Chart 1) provides historical context back to 2000. There is a clear decline in labor productivity (the dark blue line) and also multifactor productivity (light blue). These are the two most common ways of understanding output growth: labor productivity estimates how much each worker produces and multifactor productivity tells us how much each worker and unit of capital can together invest.

Looking back a bit further in time, the next graph (Chart 2) estimates the amount that different factors contributed to total productivity growth. … Read the rest


No, Immigrants are Not Stealing Our Jobs

It doesn’t take long to get the drift of a new report from the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan, anti-immigration think tank. The title basically sums it up: “All Employment Growth Since 2000 Went to Immigrants.” The only question left to the reader is, why they didn’t simply title it “Immigrants stole all of our jobs”?

Perhaps it’s because immigrants didn’t steal our jobs, and the authors have no evidence that they did, but they’re doing their best to insinuate that they do.

Their main findings certainly look surprising at first blush: immigrant employment has increased significantly since 2000, but native employment has not increased at all, despite the fact that native population has increased twice as much as immigrant employment. It seems like a closed case: all the new jobs went to immigrants, therefore we should decrease immigration.

If only it were that simple. As intuitive as it might seem to argue that a job is a job and an unemployed person is an unemployed person, this is not how economies work. The Center makes a mistake common to many casual observers of the labor market: what economists … Read the rest


Where Do New Products Come From? Insights from a new study of innovation in manufacturing

A recent NBER working paper offers up some interesting new survey data on innovation in U.S. manufacturing industries. Authors Ashish Arora, Wesley M. Cohen, and John P. Walsh surveyed more than 5000 U.S. manufacturing firms in 2010, asking whether or not they brought new products to market in the previous three years.

Most notably, the data shows that the number of truly innovative manufacturing firms is relatively small. In the aggregate, it finds that 43 percent of firms introduced new products in the past three years, but only 18 percent of firms introduced new products that were wholly new to their market. In other words, one quarter of firms, and more than half of firms introducing new products, introduced “imitation” products following the lead of other companies. The percent of firms introducing totally new products ranged significantly between industries, from just 10 percent of firms in the “Wood” and the “Metals” industries, to 44 percent in the “Instruments” industry.

The survey also breaks down the results in a number of interesting ways, including where the innovations originated. It finds that the most common source of innovation is customers. This is … Read the rest


New Paper Confirms Growth Benefits of R&D

Productivity is one of the most fundamental determinants of our income and overall wellbeing, so the question of where productivity growth comes from is extremely important. There are many different ways to increase productivity, but increases that have a continued impact over time are the most important because accumulated productivity increases end up having a much larger impact than one-off changes.

Economists have understood for years that R&D is an important source of productivity growth. However, it hasn’t been entirely clear whether R&D affects productivity growth in short, one-time boosts, or whether it raises growth rates for longer periods.

A new paper by Italian economists Antonio Minniti and Francesco Venturini looks at data from the U.S. manufacturing sector and concludes that R&D policies have indeed created “persistent, if not permanent” changes in the rate of productivity growth. It also drills down into the type of R&D spending, finding that only R&D tax credits have a long-term impact on the growth rate while R&D subsidies provide just a temporary boost.

These results are good news for both the economy and for policymakers because they show the powerful impact that innovation policies … Read the rest


STEM Immigrants Help Raise Local Wages

The H-1B visa program, which allows a limited number of high-skilled workers to work in the United States temporarily, is controversial because some claim that it lowers wages for high-skilled workers. However, a new paper by Peri, Shih, and Sparber of UC Davis and Colgate University shows just the opposite—that additional H-1B visa recipients raise wages in cities where they come to work.

The authors’ interest in immigration is a side effect of their interest in a more general labor market question: they use fluctuations in high-skill immigration due to the H-1B visa program as an instrument to examine whether the supply of STEM workers affects productivity growth. In essence the question is, what happens when you increase the amount of high-skill STEM workers: do wages fall as one would assume in a standard supply/demand framework? Or do they increase because of the effect that the high-skill workers have on productivity, demand for innovative workers, and economic growth?

To answer this question you can’t simply look at the amount of STEM workers in a city and average wages for those workers, because you can’t tell which way causality is going. … Read the rest