Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Tuesday, July 08, 2003  

The next time a conservative rolls out that tired old "government-is-wasteful-because-it's-not-run-like-a-business" canard, tell him: "Sorry. What you're describing isn't an issue of efficiency, it's Baumol's cost disease." I have read about it, and now I'm set free.

The rest of the American economy functions differently. In most businesses, workers are continually getting more productive and can produce a lot more per hour than they could ten or twenty years ago. In 1979, workers at G.M. needed forty-one hours to assemble a car. Today, they need just twenty-four. In the nineties, according to the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, retailers boosted their sales per hour by sixty per cent, and that was nothing compared with computer makers, whose productivity since 1995 has gone up sixty per cent each year. Because companies are producing more for less, they can hold down costs, and when times are good they can raise wages without hiking prices. So, in the late nineties, as productivity rose, wages did, too, though inflation lay dormant.

Generally, productivity growth is a boon, but it creates problems for non-productive enterprises like classical music, education, and car repair: to keep luring talent, they have to increase wages, or else people eventually migrate to businesses that pay better. Instead of becoming nurses or mechanics, they become telecom engineers or machinists. That’s why teachers are getting paid a lot more than they were twenty years ago. (The average salary for an associate college professor has risen almost seventy per cent since the early eighties, and that’s if you adjust for inflation.) To pay those wages, schools and hospitals have to raise prices. The result is that in industries where productivity is flat costs and prices keep going up. Economists call this phenomenon “Baumol’s cost disease,” after William Baumol, the N.Y.U. economist.

This is a seriously illuminating article; go give it a look.

posted by Jeff | 8:05 AM |
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