April 16, 2014
How rich would Bill Gates be if anyone in the world could make a computer with the latest version of Windows without even sending him a thank you note? Think about this question as you read Eduardo Porter’s piece on how technology might be shifting income towards capital making society ever more unequal.
Porter is of course right, we have seen a large shift in income from labor to capital across the world over the last three decades. However it is difficult to see how this could be seen as technologically determined when so much of this shift was clearly attributable to patent rents and other laws that certainly were not determined by technology. If current patterns of growth are increasing inequality it is because we have designed a legal and institutional system to bring about this outcome. There is nothing natural about this pattern of development. (in addition to the Bill Gates example, imagine what would happen to Walmart’s profits if it executives faced criminal penalties for violations of labor laws.)