Productivity is a Devilish Thing

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Productivity is a Devilish Thing

Will automated trucking create more jobs than it destroys? Nobody knows yet. What is easier to say is that some jobs will be destroyed, and others created elsewhere. That tends to be the pattern for major waves of technology-driven change.

Driverless vehicles might directly affect millions of people.

In the United States, there were in 2014 about 1.8 million heavy-truck and tractor-trailer long-haul drivers, with employment growing about four percent a year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So there might be nearly two million long-haul truck drivers working, in 2016.


There might also be 1.44 million delivery truck drivers.

There might also be some 233,700 taxi drivers and chauffeurs, not including ride hailing drivers associated with firms such as Uber and Lyft, which could number as much as half a million.

Commercially-available autonomous vehicles should eliminate many of those jobs, while potentially creating new jobs in new areas. The issue is where the new jobs are created, and in what quantities.

It is almost certain that there will be no one-to-one correspondence between the specific jobs lost by specific people and the new jobs created elsewhere.

Productivity might be a good thing, but it also is a disruptive--and hurtful--thing for specific industries, firms and workers. Hence the need for adjustment mechanisms.

That is never easy.

One reason it often is “so hard to get things done” in politics is that it often is easier to identify “losers,” who are quite aware of their losses, than “winners” throughout the economy who cannot specifically identify the gains they make.

That means opposition to change is highly organized, while support for changes that benefit everyone, or most people, can be diffuse.

That has analogies in other areas. Productivity is good for nations and government revenues generally, but nearly always has negative consequences for highly-specific groups.

Ability to “do more with less” might be green, nearly always boosts general consumer economic well-being, but often is harmful for specific groups of workers or industries.

Lower prices for all manner of computing-assisted products benefits consumers and enables many new industries such as e-commerce, digital and social media. Conversely, suppliers of computing products and platforms find that prices always decline.

And many industry segments, and the people who work in those segments, can find that higher productivity also means lower revenues, fewer jobs and lower wages.

At a high level, it can be argued that major technology innovations eventually create new jobs at higher levels than destroyed jobs. But the gains and losses tend to fall on different industries, firms and people. Again, losses are clear, gains are diffuse.


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