“New World Order”: Foreign Affairs

The July/August 2104 issue of Foreign Affairs contains an interesting conceptual economics article titled “New World Order.”  It’s written by three professors–Erik Brynjolfsson (MIT) , Andrew McAfee (MIT) and Michael Spence (NYU)–and outlines what the authors believe are the major long-term trends influencing global employment and economic growth.  I’m not sure I agree 100%, but I think it’s a reasonable roadmap to start with.

Here’s what the article says:

the past

Globalization has allowed companies to exploit wide wage differentials between countries by moving production from high-cost labor markets close to consumers to low labor cost areas in the developing world.  Former manufacturing workers in high-cost areas enter the service sector to seek employment, depressing wages there.

This period is now ending, as relative wage differentials have narrowed.

now

Relative labor costs are at the point where manufacturing plant location is determined by other factors.  These include:  transportation cost, turnaround time for new orders and required finished goods inventory.  This implies that manufacturing can be located closer to the end uses it serves.  However, globally higher labor costs also imply that new factories will be much more highly mechanized than before.  Robots replace humans.

As a result, wage growth will remain unusually subdued.

the future 

Although returns to capital have avoided the erosion that has befallen labor over the past generation, this situation won’t last.  Long-lived physical capital is being replaced by software (note:  the majority of investment spending done by US companies is already on software).

Software doesn’t have either the total cost or the permanence of capital invested in physical things.  Software can be moved, it can be duplicated at virtually zero extra expense.  To the extent that software replaces physical capital as a competitive differentiator, it makes the latter obsolete.  It, in turn, can be made obsolete by the innovative activity of a small number of clever coders.

Therefore, the authors conclude, returns on invested capital (especially physical capital) are already beginning to enter secular decline.

Where will future high returns be found?

…in the innovative activity of talented, well-educated entrepreneurs.

education

This brings us to a major problem the US faces.  It’s the relative slippage of the domestic education system vs. the rest of the world, and an increased emphasis on rote learning (No Child Left Behind?).

The trio dodge this politically charged issue–they do observe that there’s a direction relationship between the quality of a community’s schools and the affluence of its citizens–by asserting that online learning will come to the rescue.  A child stuck in a weak school system will, they think, be able to in a sense “home-school” himself to acquire the skills he needs to succeed in the future they envision.

my take

What I find most interesting is the presumed speed at which the authors seem to think transition will occur.

–Is it possible that we’ve reached the point where there’s no available low-cost labor left in the world?  If so, this is a dood news/bad news story for low-skill workers.  On the one hand, downward wage pressure will stop.  On the other, robotization is going to take place at warp speed, making it harder to find a job.

Relocation of factories will also have implications for transportation companies, warehousing and even the amount of raw materials tied up in company inventories.

–Does software begin to undermine hardware so quickly?  Certainly this the case with online retailing and strip malls.  But how much wider is this model applicable?

–If the key to future growth is young entrepreneurs, then the sooner we as investors reject the Baby Boom and embrace Millennials the better.  This, I think, is the safest way to benefit in the stock market if the New World Order thesis proves correct.