Saturday, 21 November 2015

You Don't Expect This Kind Of Confusion In The Financial Times


I am quite baffled how a Financial Times writer can exclaim that as the technology industry is becoming a more prominent user of capital that this means it is (to use her term) "shrinking the economic pie". You'd expect to see this sort of claim in the Guardian or the New Statesman but not the Financial Times.

This is a quite bizarre confusion about the nature of economic growth. We use capital to consume. If we need to use less capital to consume then we can consume more with our supply of capital. This is the primary definition of economic growth. Given the foregoing, it's quite obvious that increased technological capacity is not going to shrink the pie. The more efficient our information technology becomes the less capital is needed, because the more efficient the technology becomes the lower the marginal cost of production, not to mention all the other ways that increased technology frees us up to do so many other things.

It seems the writer Izabella Kaminska, whose profile perhaps tellingly says "Everything she knows about economics stems from a childhood fascination with ancient economies like that of the Roman Empire", is thinking of the economic pie in terms of how improved technology affects GDP - where for example, some of our resources that used to be spent on computers, telephones, etc used to be costlier for us. For example, whereas once it would have been more costly to speak to your mum at the other side of the city, or cousin Betty in Australia, increased technology (text messaging, Facebook, Skype, email, instant messenger) means we don't spend as much. Yes, if you're going to measure calls to mother and cousin Betty in terms of GDP then of course lower sums show up on that part of the balance sheet.

But see how this plays out in terms of life enhancement more broadly. Just think of all the things we can do with our online capacity: Facebook, Skype, and perhaps best of all our Google access to all the world's knowledge. And just think of all the ways that those technological enhancements add to our GDP, both directly and indirectly. Given that our economic growth is based on consumption, the goods and services we can now consume are obviously not causing the economic pie to shrink - they are enhancing it, because they are increasing consumption (and if you don't know why consumption is the mother of all economic growth, I explain why here).

I emailed Izabella Kaminska to state that I just cannot understand why such a claim was made in a respected journal like the FT, when it's so obviously untrue. As yet I've had no reply, and I doubt I will - but if I do, I'll let you know with an 'Edit To Add' addendum.

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