“…between technology, globalization, trade, the winner-take-all superstar effect, inequality is rising. This is not just a “moral” issue but also an issue of too little consumption too little savings that is bad for global growth. So it becomes vicious cycle. It’s a bit like the old Marxist idea that if profits grow too much compared to wages, there’s not going to be enough consumption, and capitalism is going to self destruct. So I think that insight of Karl Marx is as useful today as it was 100 years ago.”
That quote is from Nouriel Roubini, and it perfectly summarizes what a lot of the world’s elites were thinking about at the World Economic Forum.
Roubini’s words echoed the warning from MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, who told us:
…there are a lot of forces affecting inequality. There’s globalization, there are institutional changes, cultural changes, but I think most economists would agree that the biggest chunk of it is due to technology. And that’s because of what economists call skill-biased technical change — favouring skilled workers versus less-skilled workers.
Also we talk in the book about capital-biased technical change — you bring capital over labour like when you replace humans with robots. And the third category that maybe is the most important one, we call it superstar-biased technical change, maybe we should come up with a better name. But it’s the fact that technologies can leverage and amplify the special talents, skill, or luck of the 1% or maybe even the 100th of 1% and replicate them across millions or billions of people. In those kinds of markets, you tend to have winner-take-all outcomes and a few people reap enormous benefits and all of us as consumers reap benefits as well, but there’s a lot less need for people of just average or above-average skills.
Brynjolffson came to The World Economic Forum in Davos to warn policymakers that without changes, technology would exacerbate inequality, rather than benefit society as a whole.
The folks at the World Economic Forum in Davos are almost all doing extremely well. They’re the world’s 1% (actually probably more like the world’s 0.001%), and it’s well known that the recovery has been good to them. But there was also a sense — that Roubini gets at in his comment — that the good times won’t last if things keep becoming more unequal.
Figuring out a way to promote mass welfare and to ensure that more people have jobs and strong incomes becomes crucial to preserving what the elites have. Better to have some sort of rebalancing than a dramatic capitalist-destroying rebalancing.