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Technological change

The peak of the textile trade was in 1801 and after 1811, the exports declined sharply. By 1830
British goods began to displace Indian goods in the Indian market. One of the most dramatic
technological change was in spinning. It took 10,000 operative hours to spin 100 lbs of cotton
in India. Crompton’s mule, one of the first machines of the industrial revolution in 1780, did
this in 2000 operative hours. By 1825, the number was down to 125 with Robert’s automatic
mule. (Broadberry and Gupta 20094)

Yes, yes, yes, we all know, spinning, textiles, industrial revolution.

But think about the truly important part of this, how this really made us all richer.

That’s 9,875 hours, for every 100 lbs of cotton, of human labour which can be used to go do something else. And people did.

The point about the mechanisation isn’t so much that we got the machines to do the spinning but that humans didn’t have to do the spinning.

29 thoughts on “Technological change”

  1. You’ve got it all wrong. What the figures show was the existence of a foul British conspiracy to impoverish India. Source: any Indian nationalist you care to speak to.

  2. And, just as is happening today, there were people (most of whom had no experience – even tangentally – with industry and manufacturing) saying that automated spinning would crush living standards and usher in a new age of global unemployment.

  3. And yet the people put out of work by the industrial revolution and since…. have found jobs. Strange that.
    Its like increased production and decreased costs lead to people becoming …. wealthier?

  4. Right now you hear a lot of wailing and gnashing about how robots and self driving vehicles will put millions out of work. However, people have been figuring out other things to do ever since someone invented the wheel and then the wheel barrow, reducing the number of people needed to hump a load.

    Meanwhile, critics of technology wail “but you don’t know what new things people will do”. Mr Worstall made a point recently that I hadn’t considered, which was that minimum wage and other laws that inhibit hiring increase the costs and risks of trying out what new things people might do.

  5. The people in India became a lot poorer as a result of this because the new machines were in England and not India, because of the kinds of restrictive laws of which Mr Smith vehemently disapproved.

    Which is to say – yes, technology absolutely makes us richer as a species, but technology owned by bastards with no recompense definitely messes with this at a more individual level.

  6. I’d love to have a self-driving car. It would mean I’d be able to accept that 8am job in Newcastle which requires falling out of bed at 5am. I’d be able to sleep in the car on the way there.

  7. I always want to know their definition of far-right, just for standardisation and consistency. My personal experience is that a lefty can’t give a coherent reply. They know what they mean and in precis it’s none other than ‘someone we disapprove of’ Get down to details and you’ll find a lefty can’t accurately describe what any right-wing people think. They make it up entirely from their prejudices without any reference to what you might tell them. They can do this because RW folks are evil and would if attended to lie about their motives anyway.

    Be nice to get the Guardian or BBC guidelines on when they should apply the pejorative label ‘far-right’. They do have editorial guidelines..

  8. johnb78 – and the people in India were able to afford to buy cotton. Rather than it being so expensive only the richer people could afford to buy much.

  9. Tommydog,

    “Meanwhile, critics of technology wail “but you don’t know what new things people will do””

    When we all have Ferraris, or every woman has a wardrobe of Manolo Blahniks, maybe we should start getting worried. But we aren’t there yet.

  10. Define the far right?
    You will note that there is never a political position that is described as “far left”. Therefore all left wing positions must be in the centre ground. Hence any political position, not left wing, will be to the far right of some left wingers & can be defined as such.

  11. It would be interesting to see what Mr Worstall thought of Robin Hanson and his ‘brain uploading puts us out of work’ thesis.

    The only problem with automation is when it starts to imitate us at the creative things.

  12. Rhoda Klapp said:
    “Be nice to get the Guardian or BBC guidelines on when they should apply the pejorative label ‘far-right’.”

    Would be interesting to see their definition, and examples, of the full range. Left & right, centre left & right, far left & right.

  13. Technological change brings huge benefits but the level of free trade is a restricting factor. In the case of British India, the East India Company controlled the terms and flow of trade between the Indians and British to the detriment of the Indians.

    International trade is far less restricted today and containerisation and telecommunications have reduced loss and duration of exports.

    The problem for expensive western economies is that the benefit of these changes also flow back to the cheaper countries too. Great for the human race as a whole, less so for those who wish to have a protected minimum wage at a level that’s much higher than the wages overseas.

  14. Anon,

    We all drive cars that are technologically far better than any 50 year old Ferrari. (Actually, most people could afford a new Ferrari, they just can’t afford it and a house.)

    Everyone’s wardrobe is full of high quality footwear. Seriously, I have zero interest in footwear and as a result of going overseas I cleared out five pairs. Many people own dozens of shoes, for running, walking, hiking, mud, working, social, and dress. And almost anyone can afford Manolo Blahniks, if they want them.

    No we can’t all have the literally impossible, which is to all have top end status goods. But we’re making excellent progress towards it.

    You have to be seriously myopic not to realise we live in an age of, compared to even 50 year’s ago, fantastic material wealth.

  15. +Martin, sure the price of cotton came down to affordable levels and the loss of ten (or fifty or a hundred) thousand jobs benefited millions. But, as Tim is often at pains to point out, the gains aren’t quite so clear-cut. It’s a trade-off. The economy doesn’t absorb those ten thousand workers immediately and in a time of rapid automation, like the nineteenth century, it can take not months but years and decades. The many haves are somewhat better off but the ten thousand have-nots are destitute. (And unproductive, contributing not a whisker of a percentage point to growth.)

    In my country we went through the great chicken saga. Our benevolent governors imposed steep tariffs on imported chicken, to save fifty-five thousand jobs. As a result fifty-five million consumers paid twice what chicken should have cost, and we were all poorer. It would have been cheaper to pay those fifty-five thousand to sit at home on full pay.

    Unfortunately life is not an Excel spreadsheet and behind all the neat and tidy numbers there are real humans and their families taking strain because the rational economic decision doesn’t attach a value to human misery.

  16. Listening to radio 5 on the drive to airport this morning: great ideas included taxing robots and spending a fortune on re-training and other social welfare schemes. The left have a seriously low opinion of human abilities if they are worried what people will do when they no longer have a job scanning bar codes or putting things into boxes.

  17. Taxing robots was so that they can’t compete “unfairly” with people. Talk about regulating business to death.

  18. Bill Gates got on the “robot tax” lunacy last year too.

    What if the “robot” could enhance a medical procedure and save your child’s life?

    Then we have a definition problem; are traffic lights taxable? Washing machines?

  19. Believe me – you only have to be marginally to the right of someone to be described as a conservative with fascist leanings, in the same way most of you think I am vastly more left wing than I actually am! Fewer and fewer people are capable of more than a one-bit approach to political topics.

  20. because the rational economic decision doesn’t attach a value to human misery.

    Actually, I’d argue that Western Europe is sufficiently far along the Kuznets curve that we are attaching economic value to what is portrayed to us as “human misery”. I’m currently typing this from a proudly proclaimed “Fairtrade City” (Edinburgh).

    We may argue whether Fairtrade is actually effective in reducing human misery amongst the poor or really is there to provide low stress jobs for the right-on whilst maintaining a slightly-more-attractive than destitute producer class to keep the rental income flowing.

    But well meaning people do insist on buying stuff with the logo. And note the fuss about Sainsbury ditching Fairtrade for just tea.

  21. are traffic lights taxable? Washing machines?

    Indeed. Advocate taxing robots because they are replacing manual labour and a ridiculous number of people will say “not a bad idea, that”.

    Advocate taxing washing machines because they replaced female labour washing clothes and people will think you mad or evil.

  22. The US has just begun taxing washing machines! (those from South Korea)

    Southerner: Those experiencing a threat to their livelihood in manual labor, like everyone else, do not wait around for the “economy to re-absorb” them. Absent government payments and demagogues showing them how to finger-point to foreign culprits, they learn new skills and relocate. The focus of their lives is to become useful again.

    That much manufacturing, manual labor, driving, and even hospitality is going away is an annoyance. But the first thing we should do is remove the impediments (such as absurdly high mandated wages and benefits) and see how much of the problem remains.

  23. Bloke in Costa Rica

    A modern cotton gin will process on the order of 3000–15000 kg of cotton an hour in a machine that needs at most two or three people to operate it. That’s a hundred man-hours a lb down to about 320 man-milliseconds per lb, a reduction of about a million times.

  24. +Spike about 30 nations on earth have a more or less adequate safety net for the unemployed. The remaining 150 or so do not. I’m sure that if you lose your job you will think nothing of spending hefty sums on retraining, while having sufficient savings to keep yourself going for a year without an income. You will think nothing of selling your house and relocating to the other side of the country. It’ll cost a fair bit of money but you’ll hardly notice it.

    You do of course realise that very very few workers are in your lucky position. “Learn new skills and relocate.” I must remember to tell that to the next beggar I meet.

  25. Southerner – I did not realize I was addressing one of those exact excuse-makers. “You will think nothing of spending hefty sums,” in other words, I am too wealthy to understand the displaced worker’s position, or too devoid of pity. Let’s let that ad-hominem pass.

    Indeed a worker in one of the countries without a “safety net” might not have enough savings to survive for a year while he enters university to prepare for that perfect job. This is because he might not aim for his perfect job at all. He might accept the next best available job to the one he was doing, perhaps with a longer commute, and perhaps training on the job. He might not own a house at all – he ought not, if his employment picture is that uncertain, and that would make moving easier. But he will definitely not sit around waiting for the “economy to re-absorb” him, and damning the macroeconomy that harmed him – unless there is one of those “safety nets” to permit it. Workers do not benefit from your beggar model.

    A study came out during one of those campaigns for Washington to mandate 99 weeks of unemployment compensation, that American workers are very resourceful, during the final two weeks of their benefits.

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