The New Geography of Jobs (part 2)

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Enrico Moretti makes a good case that where a worker lives still matters, and that job opportunities are unevenly distributed across metropolitan areas of the United States. The best jobs in the innovation sector of the economy are to be found primarily in a small number of thriving metropolitan areas.

I find Moretti less convincing when he addresses more general economic questions, such as how many good jobs the new economy can create. He presents a rather rosy view of job creation that would be contested by other authors.

How much opportunity?

Moretti cites the spectacular growth rates of certain kinds of jobs, such as in software, scientific research and development, and pharmaceuticals. But even in these areas, the absolute numbers of jobs are not as impressive as the growth curves (which tend to rise steeply when they are starting from close to zero). Moretti says that the innovation sector can be the main engine of economic growth without providing a majority of the jobs, but one would still like to know how much it can grow beyond its estimated 10% of jobs today, considering that manufacturing jobs used to employ 30% of the labor force.

Moretti asserts that “2.6 jobs are typically created for every one destroyed,” but he doesn’t suggest a time frame for that process or explain why job creation has been so sluggish and unemployment so high during this particular transition.

Consistent with his rosy view of job creation, Moretti regards the concentration of good jobs in certain metropolitan areas as a temporary state of affairs:

Just like people, industries have life cycles. When they are infants, they tend to be dispersed among many small producers spread all over the map. During their formative years, when they are young and at the peak of their innovative potential, they tend to concentrate to harness the power of clusters. When they are old and their products become mature, they tend to disperse again and locate where costs are low. Thus it is not surprising that the innovation sector— the part of the economy that is now going through its formative years— is concentrated in a handful of cities.

Cities that have fallen behind can catch up by means of a “big push: a coordinated policy that breaks the impasse and simultaneously brings skilled workers, employers, and specialized business services to a new location.” Apparently this is only theory, however, since “looking at the map of America’s major innovation clusters, it is hard to find an example of one that was spawned by a big push.”

I would suggest that the jury is still out on whether the information society can create as many well-paid, full-time jobs as the manufacturing society in its heyday. The last book I reviewed, Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society, argues that it cannot. Rifkin believes that the information age is calling into question the whole idea of the paid job as defined by capitalism. The fact that knowledge is so easily shared may place a limitation on how much it will be bought and sold in the marketplace. When people can access the ideas of the most renowned scholars on the Internet for free, how many intellectuals will be paid to think?

I accept the assumption that as machines do more of the routine work, people will be liberated to engage in more creative activity. The question is how much of that creative activity will take the form of paid work. Maybe we will do less paid work in the aggregate, but distribute what paid work there is more evenly.

Why inequality?

Moretti’s take on inequality is consistent with his belief that the demand for qualified employees is ample, and the problem is on the supply side. In other words, the system is a meritocracy, with low pay and unemployment resulting from inferior qualifications. The way to remedy that is to invest more in education and/or admit more educated immigrants. (He notes that highly skilled immigrants can be job creators rather than job stealers because of their contribution to innovation and its economic multiplier effects.)

This meritocratic view is contested by other economists, notably Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (See my review, especially Part 3.) In his view, the distribution of income depends not just on merit but on institutional factors, such as the organization and bargaining power of unions and the influence of executives over their own compensation. The widening pay gap between executives and other workers cannot be accounted for by a widening education gap. The distribution of income also depends on the share of national income going to owners of capital, which has been rising recently (from a range of 15-25% in rich countries in 1970 to a range of 25-30% recently). This happens when the return on capital remains high although the rate of general economic growth has slowed. Getting ahead through wage growth becomes harder compared to profiting from accumulated wealth.

Moretti makes a contribution to economic geography, but his general view of the job market never gets beyond the conventional wisdom to address the more interesting controversies.

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