Artificial intelligence is having a profound effect on economies and society. From production, to services, to healthcare, to pharmaceuticals; to education, to research, to data analysis; to software, to search engines; to planning, to communication, to legal services, to social media – to our everyday lives, AI is transforming the way humans interact. And that transformation is likely to accelerate. But what will be the effects on GDP, on consumption, on jobs, on the distribution of income, and human welfare in general? These are profound questions and ones that economists and other social scientists are pondering. Here we look at some of the issues and possible scenarios.
According to the Merrill/Bank of America article linked below, when asked about the potential for AI, ChatGPT replied:
AI holds immense potential to drive innovation, improve decision-making processes and tackle complex problems across various fields, positively impacting society.
But the magnitude and distribution of the effects on society and economic activity are hard to predict. Perhaps the easiest is the effect on GDP. AI can analyse and interpret data to meet economic goals. It can do this much more extensively and much quicker than using pre-AI software. This will enable higher productivity across a range of manufacturing and service industries. According to the Merrill/Bank of America article, ‘global revenue associated with AI software, hardware, service and sales will likely grow at 19% per year’. With productivity languishing in many countries as they struggle to recover from the pandemic, high inflation and high debt, this massive boost to productivity will be welcome.
But whilst AI may lead to productivity growth, its magnitude is very hard to predict. Both the ‘low-productivity future’ and the ‘high-productivity future’ described in the IMF article linked below are plausible. Productivity growth from AI may be confined to a few sectors, with many workers displaced into jobs where they are less productive. Or, the growth in productivity may affect many sectors, with ‘AI applied to a substantial share of the tasks done by most workers’.
Even if AI does massively boost the growth in world GDP, the distribution is likely to be highly uneven, both between countries and within countries. This could widen the gap between rich and poor and create a range of social tensions.
In terms of countries, the main beneficiaries will be developed countries in North America, Europe and Asia and rapidly developing countries, largely in Asia, such as China and India. Poorer developing countries’ access to the fruits of AI will be more limited and they could lose competitive advantage in a number of labour-intensive industries.
Then there is growing inequality between the companies controlling AI systems and other economic actors. Just as companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Meta grew rich as computing, the Internet and social media grew and developed, so these and other companies at the forefront of AI development and supply will grow rich, along with their senior executives. The question then is how much will other companies and individuals benefit. Partly, it will depend on how much production can be adapted and developed in light of the possibilities that AI presents. Partly, it will depend on competition within the AI software market. There is, and will continue to be, a rush to develop and patent software so as to deliver and maintain monopoly profits. It is likely that only a few companies will emerge dominant – a natural oligopoly.
Then there is the likely growth of inequality between individuals. The reason is that AI will have different effects in different parts of the labour market.
The labour market
In some industries, AI will enhance labour productivity. It will be a tool that will be used by workers to improve the service they offer or the items they produce. In other cases, it will replace labour. It will not simply be a tool used by labour, but will do the job itself. Workers will be displaced and structural unemployment is likely to rise. The quicker the displacement process, the more will such unemployment rise. People may be forced to take more menial jobs in the service sector. This, in turn, will drive down the wages in such jobs and employers may find it more convenient to use gig workers than employ workers on full- or part-time contracts with holidays and other rights and benefits.
But the development of AI may also lead to the creation of other high-productivity jobs. As the Goldman Sachs article linked below states:
Jobs displaced by automation have historically been offset by the creation of new jobs, and the emergence of new occupations following technological innovations accounts for the vast majority of long-run employment growth… For example, information-technology innovations introduced new occupations such as webpage designers, software developers and digital marketing professionals. There were also follow-on effects of that job creation, as the boost to aggregate income indirectly drove demand for service sector workers in industries like healthcare, education and food services.
Nevertheless, people could still lose their jobs before being re-employed elsewhere.
The possible rise in structural unemployment raises the question of retraining provision and its funding and whether workers would be required to undertake such retraining. It also raises the question of whether there should be a universal basic income so that the additional income from AI can be spread more widely. This income would be paid in addition to any wages that people earn. But a universal basic income would require finance. How could AI be taxed? What would be the effects on incentives and investment in the AI industry? The Guardian article, linked below, explores some of these issues.
The increased GDP from AI will lead to higher levels of consumption. The resulting increase in demand for labour will go some way to offsetting the effects of workers being displaced by AI. There may be new employment opportunities in the service sector in areas such as sport and recreation, where there is an emphasis on human interaction and where, therefore, humans have an advantage over AI.
Another issue raised is whether people need to work so many hours. Is there an argument for a four-day or even three-day week? We explored these issues in a recent blog in the context of low productivity growth. The arguments become more compelling when productivity growth is high.
AI users are not all benign. As we are beginning to see, AI opens the possibility for sophisticated crime, including cyberattacks, fraud and extortion as the technology makes the acquisition and misuse of data, and the development of malware and phishing much easier.
Another set of issues arises in education. What knowledge should students be expected to acquire? Should the focus of education continue to shift towards analytical skills and understanding away from the simple acquisition of knowledge and techniques. This has been a development in recent years and could accelerate. Then there is the question of assessment. Generative AI creates a range of possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of cheating. How should modes of assessment change to reflect this problem? Should there be a greater shift towards exams or towards project work that encourages the use of AI?
Finally, there is the issue of the sort of society we want to achieve. Work is not just about producing goods and services for us as consumers – work is an important part of life. To the extent that AI can enhance working life and take away a lot of routine and boring tasks, then society gains. To the extent, however, that it replaces work that involved judgement and human interaction, then society might lose. More might be produced, but we might be less fulfilled.
- The Macroeconomics of Artificial Intelligence
IMF publications, Erik Brynjolfsson and Gabriel Unger (December 2023)
- Economic impacts of artificial intelligence (AI)
European Parliamentary Research Service, Marcin Szczepański (July 2019)
- Artificial intelligence: A real game changer
Chief Investment Office, Merrill/Bank of America (July 2023)
- Generative AI could raise global GDP by 7%
Goldman Sachs, Joseph Briggs (5/4/23)
- The macroeconomic impact of artificial intelligence
PwC, Jonathan Gillham, Lucy Rimmington, Hugh Dance, Gerard Verweij, Anand Rao, Kate Barnard Roberts and Mark Paich (February 2018)
- How genAI is revolutionizing the field of economics
CNN, Bryan Mena and Samantha Delouya (12/10/23)
- AI-powered digital colleagues are here. Some ‘safe’ jobs could be vulnerable.
BBC Worklife, Sam Becker (30/11/23)
- Generative AI and Its Economic Impact: What You Need to Know
Investopedia, Jim Probasco (1/12/23)
- AI is coming for our jobs! Could universal basic income be the solution?
The Guardian Philippa Kelly (16/11/23)
- CFPB chief’s warning: AI is a ‘natural oligopoly’ in the making
Politico, Sam Sutton (21/11/23)
- Which industries are most likely to benefit from the development of AI?
- Distinguish between labour-replacing and labour-augmenting technological progress in the context of AI.
- How could AI reduce the amount of labour per unit of output and yet result in an increase in employment?
- What people are most likely to (a) gain, (b) lose from the increasing use of AI?
- Is the distribution of income likely to become more equal or less equal with the development and adoption of AI? Explain.
- What policies could governments adopt to spread the gains from AI more equally?
Boris Johnson gave a speech on 30 June outlining his government’s approach to recovery from the sharpest recession on record. With the slogan ‘Build, build, build’, he said that infrastructure projects were the key to stimulating the economy. Infrastructure spending is a classic Keynesian response to recession as it stimulates aggregate demand allowing slack to be taken up, while also boosting aggregate supply, thereby allowing recovery in output while increasing potential national income.
A new ‘New deal’
He likened his approach to that of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. This was a huge stimulus between 1933 and 1939 in an attempt to lift the US economy out of the Great Depression. There was a massive programme of government spending on construction projects, such as hospitals, schools, roads, bridges and dams, including the Hoover Dam and completing the 113-mile Overseas Highway connecting mainland Florida to the Florida Keys. Altogether, there were 34 599 projects, many large-scale. In addition, support was provided for people on low incomes, the unemployed, the elderly and farmers. Money supply was expanded, made possible by leaving the Gold Standard in 1934.
There was some debate as to whether the New Deal could be classed as ‘Keynesian’. Officially, the administration was concerned to achieve a balanced budget. However, it had a separate ’emergency budget’, from which New Deal spending was financed. According to estimates by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, the total extra spending amounted to nearly 40% of US GDP as it was in 1929.
By comparison with the New Deal, the proposals of the Johnson government are extremely modest. Mostly it amounts to bringing forward spending already committed. The total of £5 billion is just 0.2% of current UK GDP.
Focusing on jobs
A recent report published by the Resolution Foundation, titled ‘The Full Monty‘, argues that as the Job Retention Scheme, under which people have been furloughed on 80% pay, is withdrawn, so unemployment is set to rise dramatically. The claimant count has already risen from 1.2m to 2.8m between March and May with the furlough scheme in place.
Policy should thus focus on job creation, especially in those sectors likely to experience the largest rise in unemployment. Such sectors include non-food retail, hospitality (pubs, restaurants, hotels, etc.), public transport, the arts, entertainment and leisure and a range of industries servicing these sectors. What is more, many of the people working in these sectors are young and low paid. Many will find it difficult to move to jobs elsewhere – partly because of a lack of qualifications and partly because of a lack of alternative jobs. The rising unemployment will raise inequality.
The Resolution Foundation report argues that policy should be focused specifically on job creation.
Policy makers should act now to minimise outflows from the hard-hit sectors – a wage subsidy scheme or a National Insurance cut in those sectors would reduce labour costs and discourage redundancies. Alongside this, the Government must pursue radical action to create jobs across the country, such as in social care and housing retrofitting, and ramp up support for the unemployed.
Dealing with hyteresis
The economy is set to recover somewhat as the lockdown is eased, but it is not expected to return to the situation before the pandemic. Many jobs will be lost permanently unless government support continues.
Even then, many firms will have closed and others will have reassessed how many workers they need to employ and whether less labour-intensive methods would be more profitable. They may take the opportunity to consider whether technology, such as AI, can replace labour; or they may prefer to employ cheap telecommuters from India or the Philippines rather than workers coming into the office.
Policies to stimulate recovery will need to take these hysteresis effects into account if unemployment is to fall back to pre-Covid rates.
- Coronavirus: Boris Johnson pledges ‘new deal’ to build post-virus
BBC News (30/6/20)
- Boris Johnson hails his economic plan as a new ‘New Deal.’ Try ‘small deal’ instead
MarketWatch, Pierre Briançon (30/6/20)
- Boris Johnson announces state-led post-coronavirus relaunch
Financial Times, George Parker, Jim Pickard and Chris Giles (30/6/20)
- How does Boris Johnson’s ‘new deal’ compare with Franklin D Roosevelt’s?
The Guardian, Richard Partington (30/6/20)
- Coronavirus: Ministers urged to stave off ‘second wave’ of unemployment with major job creation plan
PoliticsHome, Matt Honeycombe-Foster (29/6/20)
- Biggest job creation package in peacetime needed to deflect increase in UK unemployment, think tank reports
Independent, Alan Jones (29/6/20)
- UK needs ‘biggest-ever peacetime job creation plan’ to stop mass unemployment
The Guardian, Richard Partington (29/6/20)
- The International Labour Organization was founded after the Spanish flu – its past lights the path to a better future of work
The Conversation, Huw Thomas, Frederick Harry Pitts and Peter Turnbull (17/6/20)
- Seven charts on the coronavirus jobs market
BBC News, By Lora Jones and Daniele Palumbo (16/6/20)
- Covid, hysteresis, and the future of work
Vox, Richard Baldwin (29/5/20)
- The economy won’t snap back after Covid-19
Financial Times, Tim Harford (5/6/20)
- Addressing The Covid-19 Shock -Keeping People In Work And Businesses Afloat
Forbes, Linda Yueh (20/3/20)
- Cutting labour taxes brings back the jobs lost to COVID-19
Vox, Christian Bredemeier, Falko Juessen and Roland Winkler (28/6/20)
- What are the arguments for and against substantial increased government expenditure on infrastructure projects?
- Should the UK government spend more or less on such projects than the amount already pledged? Justify your answer.
- What are the arguments for and against directing all extra government expenditure towards green projects?
- Look through the Resolution Foundation report and summarise the findings of each of its sections.
- What are the arguments for and against directing all extra government expenditure towards those sectors where there is the highest rate of job losses?
- What form could policies to protect employment take?
- How should the success of policies to generate employment be measured?
- What form does hysteresis play on the post-Covid-19 labour market? What four shocks mean that employment will not simply return to the pre-Covid situation?
I found this interesting article on the BBC News website about three students in Nigeria who have created an online job search company. Only five years later, this company now is valued in the millions and employs over 100 people.
The article below contains some interesting insights into the Nigerian job market and the key to success for this company. In particular, they note the effect of the multiplier through job creation and how this has been used to benefit the wider economy. This is particularly pertinent given the severe unemployment problem that has affected this African economy. It has helped 35,000 people to find jobs in the past two years.
How three students created Nigeria’s online jobs giant BBC News, Jason Boswell (2/9/14)
- What are the main causes of the unemployment problem in Nigeria?
- The company itself employs hundreds of people, but indirect employment effects have also occurred. How has this happened?
- How important are entrepreneurs in African countries as a means of helping their development?
The expansion of the BRIC economies has both advantages and disadvantages for Western countries. Their consistently high growth rates have created a much wider market place for Western firms and a much needed additional source of consumer demand, especially in times of recession. Countries such as China have had double digit growth rates, with others like India experiencing growth rates of just under 10%. But are these impressive growth rates now beginning to fall?
For the last 2 years, the growth rate in the Indian economy has been sub-5%, with growth in the 2013-14 financial year at 4.7%. Though some sectors, including agriculture have experienced buoyant growth, it is other sectors that have been holding this economy back. Manufacturing contracted at an annualised rate of 1.4% over the quarter, while mining contracted by 0.4%. With a growth rate of just under 5%, one might think that this was good – after all many Western economies have only recently entered positive growth. However, the Indian economy has a rapidly growing population and it is estimated that 10 million additional jobs each year must be created. It is this figure that requires such a high growth rate – estimated at around 8%. Thus, the sub-5% growth recorded for 2 years is insufficient to sustain the required job creation.
There are many factors that appear to be holding growth back. High inflation has been a problem for some years and the Indian currency has been relatively weak and volatile. Together, these issues have created an environment of uncertainty and if there’s one thing that investors don’t like, it’s uncertainty. This has therefore led to a lack of investment in the economy, which is a key component of aggregate demand and hence a key source of economic growth. Furthermore, interest rates rose last year, thereby pushing up the cost of borrowing and the rate of credit growth has also slowed. These factors collectively have led to lower foreign investment, domestic investment and spending, which have all contributed towards more subdued growth than in the past. Glenn Levine, a senior economist at Moody’s said:
India’s economy continues to grow well below potential as a combination of supply‐side constraints and the adverse effects of an underperforming government weigh on capital expenditure and hiring … It will be a while before the Indian economy is expanding above 6% again.
However, many economists remain optimistic about the prospects of Asia’s third-largest economy. Inflation appears to be under control and the currency has gained strength. Many believe that more investment supporting government policies will be the kick start the economy needs and this will in turn encourage firms to begin investment. It may be the new leader of this country, Narendra Modo, that will jump start the economy. The Prime Minister is expected to back policies to stimulate growth, who will direct more spending at infrastructure, simplify taxes and introduce policies to attract foreign investment. Adi Godrej, Chairman of the Godrej group said:
As soon as investors see the first signals of growth-supportive policies, you will see a definite turnaround on the ground.
The coming months will be crucial in determining how quickly the Indian economy is likely to see a return to near double digit growth. The new government has indeed promised policies to boost the economy, but the annual budget will confirm whether this promise is likely to be kept. Given the dependence of Indian jobs on a fast growth rate and the dependence of the Western world on the continued growth of the BRICs in creating a wider market for our exports, the fortunes of India are extremely important. The following articles consider this economy.
Indian economy grew at 4.7% in 2013-14 The Times of India (30/5/14)
India’s economic growth disappoints BBC News (30/5/14)
India’s GDP grows 4.7% in fiscal year, missing government forecast Wall Street Journal, Anant Vijay Kala (30/5/14)
India’s economy expands 4.7pct in fiscal year 2013/14 Reuters (30/5/14)
India’s economy still underwhelms CNN Money, Charles Riley, Alanna Petroff (30/5/14)
FY14 GDP growth at 4.7%; India sees worst slowdown in 25 years The Economic Times (30/5/14)
India growth below 5% adds pressure on Modi to spur investment Bloomberg, Unni Krishnan (30/5/14)
Jim Armitage: ‘Modinomics’ in India has helped growth, but not for all Independent, Jim Armitage (17/5/14)
- Using a diagram, explain how economic growth can be created through (a) demand-side measures and (b) supply-side measures.
- Why would higher interest rates reduce growth?
- Why does high inflation create uncertainty and what impact does this have on business investment?
- India has experienced a weak and volatile currency and this has contributed towards a lack of foreign investment and low growth. Using a diagram, explain why this could be the case.
- What sort of government policies would you recommend for the Indian economy if you had become the new Prime Minister and your primary objective was to boost economic growth?
- Why is the expansion of the BRIC economies, of which India is one, so important for Western economies?
Unemployment figures for the UK have been going in the wrong direction for some time. With consumer expenditure, investment and hence aggregate demand remaining low, job creation has been severely lacking. However, 2 pieces of news have emerged in the last couple of days, which as David Cameron said was ‘a massive confidence boost for the UK economy’. Tesco and Nissan have both announced the creation of thousands of new jobs.
Over the next 2 years, Tesco has said that it will create 20,000 new jobs through store improvement and the opening of new stores. Whilst it is not clear how many will be full-time, part-time or apprenticeship placements, it still represents net job creation. This huge investment represents what many are calling a ‘fight-back’ from Tesco, who issued its first profit warning in 20 years, following weak Christmas trading. That announcement slashed their shares by over £5bn and is perhaps partly responsible for this planned investment.
Despite this good news, criticisms have emerged that the major supermarkets are simply inflating the job creation figures and that the actual number of new jobs will be significantly less than the 20,000 suggested. This follows allegations made towards Asda, who claimed to have created 30,000 jobs. However, evidence from records at Companies House suggests that new job creation by the company was closer to 7,000. Whatever the true figure, it still means new jobs, which can only help UK unemployment data.
In addition to this, Nissan has also announced that it will be creating 2,000 new jobs, as it begins production on a new model at its Sunderland factory. The jobs will be created as part of a £125m investment, including a £9.3m grant from the government. This is especially good news, given the area where many of these jobs will emerge. The North East is a region that has been hit particularly hard by the recession and the grant from the government has come from its regional growth fund. Nissan has said that even in hard economic times, it is possible to sell cars, as long as they are competitively priced. Neither of the plans discussed above will create jobs immediately, but perhaps the key is that it creates confidence, which is a rarity in the UK with the current economic situation. The following articles consider these job creation plans and their wider implications.
Tesco plans to create 20,000 UK jobs over 2 years BBC News (5/3/12)
Tesco to create 20,000 jobs in UK fight-back Telegraph, Jamie Dunkley (6/3/12)
Tesco’s UK boss defends ‘new jobs’ claims Sky News (5/3/12)
Tesco to freshen up with 20,000 new staff Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (5/3/12)
Now Tesco creates 20,000 jobs – with pay Independent (9/5/11)
Nissan to build new car in Sunderland BBC News (6/3/12)
Nissan pledges 2,000 new jobs at North East plant Sky News, Gerard Tubb (6/3/12)
Nissan Invitation compact car set to create 2,000 jobs Telegraph, Roland Gribben and David Millward (6/3/12)
Nissan to create 2,000 new jobs by building compact car in Sunderland Guardian, Dan Milmo(6/3/12)
- Explain the process by which net job creation should provide a boost to the economy.
- Will these new jobs have any impact on the government’s budget deficit?
- Why is there concern that the supermarkets are inflating the employment creation figures?
- What type of unemployment has been created by the recession? Why have certain areas, such as the North East been affected so badly by the recession and austerity measures?
- Which factors could have led to Tesco’s weaker trading figures towards then end of 2011? Why did this lead to a £5bn loss in the value of the group’s shares?
- Nissan has said that cars can be sold as long as they are competitively priced. To what extent do you think price is the main competitive weapon in the market for cars and in the supermarket industry?