Why the Economic Payoff From Technology Is So Elusive
Your smartphone allows you to get almost instantaneous answers to the most obscure questions. It also allows you to waste hours scrolling through Facebook or looking for the latest deals on Amazon.
More powerful computing systems can predict the weather better than any meteorologist or beat human champions in complex board games like chess.
But for several years, economists have asked why all that technical wizardry seems to be having so little impact on the economy. The issue surfaced again recently, when the government reported disappointingly slow growth and continuing stagnation in productivity. The rate of productivity growth from 2011 to 2015 was the slowest since the five-year period ending in 1982.
One place to look at this disconnect is in the doctor’s office. Dr. Peter Sutherland, a family physician in Tennessee, made the shift to computerized patient records from paper in the last few years. There are benefits to using electronic health records, Dr. Sutherland says, but grappling with the software and new reporting requirements has slowed him down. He sees fewer patients, and his income has slipped.
“I’m working harder and getting a little less,” he said.
The productivity puzzle has given rise to a number of explanations in recent years — and divided economists into technology pessimists and optimists.
The most prominent pessimist is Robert J. Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University. His latest entry in the debate is his new book,“The Rise and Fall of American Growth.” Mr. Gordon contends that the current crop of digital innovations does not yield the big economic gains of breakthrough inventions of the past, like electricity, cars, planes and antibiotics.