CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As an occasional foot racer, I have won small prizes over the years: these little plastic statuettes were never for first, second or third place overall -- they only symbolized second or third in my age/gender group.
Even knowing well that I was only an average runner, I would hang around after the big prizes had been awarded, waiting to see if I could score one of these more modest trophies.
A new book by economist Tyler Cowen informs me that this kind of thinking -- taking some pride for modest accomplishment -- is now passé. We now live in an economy, he tells us, in which the most productive professionals get virtually all the rewards while their second tier competitors receive far less.
The book's title: "Average is Over."
Cowen's thesis is simple but disturbing -- cyber tools using artificial intelligence (AI) are now so powerful that professionals who can use them well, will out perform -- by a substantial margin -- their non-cyberized colleagues.
High level professional jobs that would have taken days may now take only minutes. Furthermore, the AI equipped computers can learn; as more jobs are processed, AI programs may eventually discover implicit linkages that even the most accomplished human professional has overlooked. And AI is, itself, getting better and better.
Cowen jokes about the process (e.g. a textile factory now is manned by only a dog and a human -- the human feeds the dog and the dog keeps the human from messing with the machinery), but hyper-productive partnerships of humans and AI are shrinking the job base.
Educators have been pointing out almost ad nauseum that those with a college degree get paid considerably more than mere high school grads. But Cowen goes further. He points out that "inflation adjusted wages for young high school graduates were 11 percent higher in 2000 than they were more than a decade later." And even for most four-year college degrees "inflation adjusted wages ... have fallen by more than 5 percent". This is in contrast to rising wages for those who earn technical degrees at the masters and doctoral level.
Cowen predicts: "The more that high earners pull in, the more people will compete to serve them ... this will mean maids, chauffeurs and gardeners for high earners." He also compares the high earners to billionaires being driven in limos through begging hoards in the streets of Calcutta.
If he is right, the structure of the system itself has changed and neither better education nor a higher minimum wage will ultimately decrease inequality. Change the metaphor from racing to musical chairs: No matter how much we teach folks to play the game better, there will always be insufficient chairs (jobs) each round. And when we pay higher wages that only increases the motivation to automate the job away (remove more chairs).
Many of us will be uncomfortable with the prospect of our fellow citizens begging for jobs as servants but short of a destructive luddite-type rebellion, that seems to be the future.
Average is over.
Palmer, of Charleston, is a retired professor.