Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

February 15, 2014

Why the economy isn't doomed

(Continued)

The good news is that over the past several years, health-care costs have been growing at the slowest pace in half a century. While this partly reflects the lingering effects of the recession, some health economists also say the Affordable Care Act — which limits spending by the government and introduced a number of reforms — and other changes in the industry are having a more lasting impact. The slowdown, combined with a declining unemployment rate that makes companies compete more for workers, could lead to a nice bump in wages.

Now, wages won’t matter much if there’s not enough decent work for people to do. Many economists agree that outsourcing and new technologies in the workplace, while beneficial for consumers overall, have made life difficult for millions of Americans who used to work with their hands or do basic intellectual tasks such as office work. Companies have replaced factory and clerical workers alike with low-wage laborers abroad or machines at home.

Of these two forces, technology poses the most enduring threat. And while for hundreds of years economic thinkers have warned that technology would leave people without good work to do — only to be proved wrong — a surprising number of prominent economists think this time may be different. From automated checkout machines to driverless cars, new devices may bring about profound declines in employment. Such a phenomenon would create an even more unequal society, divided between those who have the education to take advantage of these changes and those who don’t.

For much of the past century, society’s greatest tool in helping Americans prosper has been education. We may not come up with more blockbuster ideas such as compulsory primary education — which revolutionized the workforce in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — or the GI Bill, which did the same after World War II. But there are about 30 million Americans over 18 who lack a high school diploma and 142 million over 25 who don’t have a four-year college degree, according to the Census Bureau. If these people were able to add to their skills and take advantage of new technologies, they’d become more productive workers.

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