[Warning: half-formed thoughts ahead]
One of the most striking characteristics of the 21st century economy (divided into goods, human contact services and information) is that even very poor people have access to information-based services that were almost unimaginable 30 years ago. Given free wifi and a second-hand phone, someone lining up at a food bank can blog about the experience, and possibly attract readers all around the world. Or they can entertain themselves with an endless supply of free books, news media, music and videos. That’s great, but it doesn’t change the fact that people in both rich and poor countries are going hungry.
Economics has traditionally been about scarcity. But now we have one part of the economy where scarcity remains dominant, and another, growing part, where it has just about disappeared. That raises a lot of different issues.
First, while we are accustomed to think of things like economic growth and inflation rates as objective facts, they are actually based on index numbers, which are the products of theoretical models. Those models don’t work well when an increasing part of the economy consists of information services that are becoming radically cheaper all the time. As a result, much of the debate about the desirability or otherwise of growth is misconceived.
A positive implication is that we can anticipate improving standards of living, because of ever-increasing access to information services, without economic growth in the 20th century sense of steadily increasing throughput of materials and energy, and correspondingly increasing environmental damage. T
A negative implication is that real incomes (that is, incomes deflated by a consumer price index) can increase, even as basic needs like food and housing become less affordable, because the price of inforamation related services is falling fast. I can’t find much that’s readily accessible on this – pointers would be appreciated. One notable fact is that the proportion of disposable income spent on food, which fell sharply between 1960 and 1998, has remained almost static since then. The price of food seems to have risen a little faster than the CPI over this period.
I haven’t talked yet about human contact services. Scarcity is just as relevant here as in the goods economy. Governments are heavily involved in funding and providing these services, and the quality of services is hard to measure. As a result, the kinds of services people get aren’t determined simply by their capacity to pay.
A question to which I don’t have an answer. Is there some way to exploit the massively increased productivity of information services to allow more, and more equal, provision of basic goods? This question underlies a lot of discussion about Universal Basic Income and similar ideas, but is rarely posed in a satisfactory way, let alone answered.
As you can tell, I’m struggling with some complicated problems here, so any thoughts welcome.
fn1. In the early days of blogging, thehomelessguy [Kevin Barbieux] did exactly this. His most recent site is here.