The Technology Trap (part 2)

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Carl Benedikt Frey uses the distinction between labor-replacing and labor-enabling technologies to explain why industrialization can have quite different short-term effects on jobs, wages, and the demand for labor. The Second Industrial Revolution did more than the first to raise labor demand, create good jobs, and increase labor’s share of national income. Here I will take a closer look at that process for the United States in the twentieth century.

New technologies

Based on the research of Michelle Alexopoulos and Jon Cohen, Frey identifies electricity and the internal combustion engine as the most important general-purpose technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution. Both originated in the late nineteenth century but were widely applied in the twentieth. Both were essential to what became the country’s largest industry by 1940, automobile production.

A distinct “American system” of manufacturing was substantially boosting productivity by the 1920s. The model-T Ford was the first product to be assembled without any hand labor for fitting pieces together, since machine tools could now produce completely standardized and interchangeable parts. Another innovation was “unit drive”–machines with their own electric motors–which “allowed factory workflows to be reconfigured to accommodate assembly line techniques, as machinery could now be arranged according to the natural sequence of manufacturing operations.”

Electricity also enabled the production of new home appliances, “such as the iron (first introduced in the market in 1893), vacuum cleaner (1907), washing machine (1907), toaster (1909), refrigerator (1916), dishwasher (1929), and dryer (1938).” These time-savers made it easier for women to enter the labor force, earning money with which to buy more of the products being made.

The internal combustion engine revolutionized transportation, as the share of households with cars went from 2.3% in 1910 to 89.8% in 1930. The share of farms with tractors went from 3.6% in 1920 to 80% in 1960. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 created better highways for cars and trucks to travel. Economists have attributed over a quarter of the increase in productivity between 1950 and 1970 to spending on highways.

Frey summarizes:

America’s great inventions of the period 1909–49 were predominantly of the enabling sort. Some jobs were clearly destroyed as new ones appeared, but overall, new technologies boosted job opportunities enormously. Indeed, gigantic new industries emerged, producing automobiles, aircraft, tractors, electrical machinery, telephones, household appliances, and so on, which created an abundance of new jobs. Vacancies rose and unemployment fell as the mysterious force of technology progressed.

Wages and working conditions

In general, wages rose along with productivity from 1870 to 1980. Since this hasn’t been true throughout history–and especially not lately–we have to say that rising productivity is helpful but not sufficient to produce wage increases. Frey suggests that concerns about worker turnover were one motive for employers to raise wages. “[T]he assembly line could be slowed if an experienced worker quit and was replaced by someone who could not initially keep pace.” Keeping labor peace in the face of worker organization and agitation was another motive.

A democratic society can also legislate on behalf of workers, especially if middle-class voters identify with their concerns. That was more the case during the Great Depression, when New Deal legislation supported worker interests. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guaranteed the right to organize and bargain with management, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 defined the standard work week as 40 hours and required employers to pay overtime for additional hours.

New technologies also created safer and less physically demanding workplaces. “Machines meant the end of the most hazardous, dirty, and backbreaking jobs,” and disabling injuries were cut in half. “Belts, gears, and shafts [of the pre-electric factory] were the main sources of factory accidents, posing a constant danger to workers’ fingers, arms, and lives.”

The “Great Leveling”

In retrospect, the twentieth century up until about 1980 is noted not only for its greater prosperity, but its reduction in economic inequality. Inequality had increased between the American Revolution and the Civil War, as artisan jobs had been lost to factories, large fortunes were being amassed, and large wage gaps had opened up between the most successful urban workers and the masses of poor people both on the farms and in the cities. The late nineteenth century is, of course, known as the “Gilded Age” for its conspicuous consumption by wealthy capitalists.

The twentieth century was different:

As Americans in the middle and at the lower end of the income distribution became the prime beneficiaries of progress, inequality went into reverse. Along with every other industrialized nation, America saw the share of income accruing to people at the top, fall.

Here, explanations differ. Thomas Piketty has argued that the general trend of capitalism is toward greater inequality, and it takes some unusual shock to the system to interrupt that process. As summarized by Frey:

In Piketty’s world, there are no forces within capitalism that serve to drive inequality down. From time to time, however, macroeconomic or political shocks may disrupt the normal equilibrium. Two world wars and the Great Depression served to destroy the riches of the wealthy.

Without denying that such shocks have played a role, Frey does see forces within capitalism to generate equality, the first of which is investment in labor-enabling technologies. That creates the potential to empower and enrich workers. A high rate of unionization is helpful for realizing that potential. Beyond that, workers must be able to keep up with the skill demands of new technologies.

“The leading explanation for the great leveling comes from pioneering work by Jan Tinbergen that conceptualized patterns of inequality as a race between technology and education….” The enabling technologies of the twentieth century favored more skilled workers. Jobs like mechanic or electrician paid well, but only for those who had the skills to do them. Semi-skilled assembly-line work could also pay pretty well, for workers with the discipline, stamina and dexterity to keep up. That could have created a wide gap between a skilled few and the unskilled many, except for the fact that so many workers were acquiring at least the basic skills they needed for an advanced industrial economy.

[E]ven if technological progress favors skilled workers, growing wage inequality does not have to be the result. The return to human capital depends on demand as well as supply. As long as the supply of skilled workers keeps pace with the demand for them, the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers will not widen. While a number of short-run events and government interventions contributed to the great leveling, the most pervasive force—and certainly the best documented one—behind its long-run egalitarian impact was the upskilling of the American workforce, which depressed the skill premium.

The percentage of young people who completed a high-school education went from 9% to 40% just between 1910 and 1935, and proceeded upward from there.

The combination of enabling technology and a more skilled population created the largest middle class the country had ever seen. But that made the shrinking of the middle class that occurred after 1980 all the more surprising and alarming. Frey calls this the “Great Reversal,” and that is the topic of the next post.


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