Wages and Technology

Mankiw names labor as one of the “factors of production” (two other important ones are land and capital) that shape the production of goods and services. “Supply and demand,” he states, “determine prices paid to workers” (398), said price being the price paid for labor, or a wage. And the wage is equal to the value of the marginal product of labor (Mankiw 400), with the marginal product of labor being defined as the change in output (as output increases) divided by the change in the number of workers (as output increases). Apparently, in most cases, having some over-large number of workers will cause a negative profit, usually because of limited tasks and facilities at which to work (there are no infinitely long assembly lines, and Universities have a finite number of classrooms in which to pay their teachers to teach first-year writing), which explains why output doesn’t increase geometrically with the number of laborers. So where do computers come in?

According to Mankiw, “Technological advance raises the marginal product of labor, which in turn increases the demand for labor” (404). If Acme Tool and Die gives Jane the assembly line worker a new computerized sprocket framistatter, Jane can framistize sprockets three times as quickly, increasing her output: technology can improve work processes, thereby increasing the value per worker, so Acme Tool and Die will hire more workers up to the new equilibrium point where marginal product of labor no longer increases. The question here, of course, would be how technological advance raises the marginal product of labor for writing teachers.

Charlie Moran (in addition to the many other useful perspectives he’s offered about computers and composition) has talked about the trade-offs involved in departments deciding to buy more computers versus departments deciding to hire more faculty, and given my above example, I think Charlie would argue rather pointedly that the number of classrooms at the university is hardly the only limiting variable determining “output” in university writing programs. So I wonder: what other factors influence universities’ decisions not to hire more faculty; what are the other reasons output of education doesn’t increase geometrically with the number of faculty?

In any case, if those factors do exist, Mankiw would probably say that a department’s decision to use its funds to buy computers rather than hire faculty makes sense economically. I’m just drawing a blank here — in trying to come up with other limits, I can’t get my head past the classrooms-and-bodies thing — but the argument would be that if you think you somehow don’t have the resources to support five more assistant professors, but you do have the funds, then of course you should buy those computers and thereby increase the productivity of the professors you do have.

Of course, this is a radical oversimplification; what actually happens (again, as Charlie has pointed out) isn’t that departments say, “Well, it’s down to the wire: we’ve got to decide whether we want more professors or more computers.” Rather, departments say, “Hey! Let’s buy some computers.” (I’ve heard it observed numberous times regarding the academic grants process that just about anything with the word “computers” on it flies right through to approval, and anything without the word computers takes much longer with much slimmer chances of approval.)

But I’ve gotten off track here; I was originally trying to work with Mankiw’s concerns about labor and wages — no, actually, so maybe not all that off track: while I think computers can have a good effect on writing instruction (otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this), I also think much of the “good news” (link via cel4145’s post on Kairosnews) could benefit from a more skeptical perspective. Such a perspective might ask, given Mankiw’s formulation above, and if computers do increase productivity among faculty, and if the value of the marginal product of labor is in fact equal to the wage, why don’t faculty get raises when they get computers?

Yeah, I’m well aware of the considerable number of possible snappy retorts to this question. I’m hoping more useful responses might point me towards statistical data indicating that professors, in fact, do receive higher salaries when they use computers. But that’s rather hopeful of me.

It’s time for bed. Big, quiet, empty apartment. Tomorrow: Mankiw’s two classes! Wage differentials! The teleological view of writing instruction!

Wages and Technology