Confusion on Investment at the Washington Post: Point Is to Displace Workers

21st February 2019 Off By binary
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The Washington Post had a rather confused piece that complained that investment encouraged by accelerated depreciation, which was a provision of the Trump tax cut (also the Obama stimulus), is “helping companies replace workers with machines.” This is reported as though it is some sort of scandal, when it is in fact precisely the point of this provision.

The stated goal of the Trump tax cut was to promote investment. This was their rationale for having the bulk of the tax cut go to businesses. Their argument was that a lower tax rate would provide businesses with more incentive to invest. More investment would lead to more rapid productivity growth. If workers got their share of gains in productivity, then they would benefit from having higher wages.

The key question in this story is whether the tax cut actually led to more investment. The evidence to date is that it has had at most a minimal effect on investment, with investment running slightly higher in 2018 than before the tax cut in 2017. There certainly has been no boom. There also is zero evidence that it led to any uptick in productivity growth, as productivity growth remained very slow through the year. So, by their own standard, the tax cut seems to be failing badly.

However, if we did see more investment and productivity growth, it would mean displacing workers. Higher productivity means more output can be produced with the same number of work hours, or alternatively, the same output can be produced with fewer work hours. (Fewer work hours doesn’t have to mean fewer workers. In other countries, much of the gain from higher productivity has been realized in the form of shorter work years. Workers have 5-6 weeks a year of vacation, paid family leave, paid sick days, and other forms of paid time off.)

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