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When Does Labor Scarcity Encourage Innovation?

  • Acemoglu, Daron

This paper studies the conditions under which the scarcity of a factor (in particular, labor) encourages technological progress and technology adoption. In standard endogenous growth models, which feature a strong scale effect, an increase in the supply of labor encourages technological progress. In contrast, the famous Habakkuk hypothesis in economic history claims that technological progress was more rapid in 19th-century United States than in Britain because of labor scarcity in the former country. Similar ideas are often suggested as possible reasons for why high wages might have encouraged rapid adoption of certain technologies in continental Europe over the past several decades, and as a potential reason for why environmental regulations can spur more rapid innovation. I present a general framework for the analysis of these questions. I define technology as strongly labor saving if the aggregate production function of the economy exhibits decreasing differences in the appropriate index of technology, q , and labor. Conversely, technology is strongly labor complementary if the production function exhibits increasing differences in q and labor. The main result of the paper shows that labor scarcity will encourage technological advances if technology is strongly labor saving. In contrast, labor scarcity will discourage technological advances if technology is strongly labor complementary. I provide examples of environments in which technology can be strongly labor saving and also show that such a result is not possible in certain canonical macroeconomic models. These results clarify the conditions under which labor scarcity and high wages encourage technological advances and the reason why such results were obtained or conjectured in certain settings, but do not always apply in many models used in the growth literature.

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Paper provided by C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers in its series CEPR Discussion Papers with number 7247.

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Date of creation: Apr 2009
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Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:7247
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  1. Paul M Romer, 1999. "Increasing Returns and Long-Run Growth," Levine's Working Paper Archive 2232, David K. Levine.
  2. Paul M Romer, 1999. "Endogenous Technological Change," Levine's Working Paper Archive 2135, David K. Levine.
  3. Alberto Alesina & Joseph Zeira, 2006. "Technology and Labor Regulations," NBER Working Papers 12581, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Aghion, P. & Howitt, P., 1990. "A Model Of Growth Through Creative Destruction," DELTA Working Papers 90-12, DELTA (Ecole normale supérieure).
  5. Daron Acemoglu, 1998. "Why Do New Technologies Complement Skills? Directed Technical Change and Wage Inequality," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 113(4), pages 1055-1089.
  6. Hellwig, Martin & Irmen, Andreas, 1999. "Endogenous technical change in a competitive economy," Papers 99-53, Sonderforschungsbreich 504.
  7. Ethan Lewis, 2005. "Immigration, Skill Mix, and the Choice of Technique," Working Papers 05-04, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  8. Richard G. Newell & Adam B. Jaffe & Robert N. Stavins, 1998. "The Induced Innovation Hypothesis and Energy-Saving Technological Change," NBER Working Papers 6437, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Paul Beaudry & Fabrice Collard, 2002. "Why has the Employment-Productivity Tradeoff among Industrialized Countries been so strong?," NBER Working Papers 8754, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Revesz, Richard L. & Stavins, Robert N., 2007. "Environmental Law," Handbook of Law and Economics, Elsevier.
  11. Daron Acemoglu, 2005. "Equilibrium Bias of Technology," NBER Working Papers 11845, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. David H. Autor & Lawrence F. Katz & Alan B. Krueger, 1997. "Computing Inequality: Have Computers Changed the Labor Market?," NBER Working Papers 5956, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  13. Zeira, Joseph, 1995. "Workers, Machines and Economic Growth," CEPR Discussion Papers 1139, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  14. Daron Acemoglu, 2002. "Directed Technical Change," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 69(4), pages 781-809.
  15. Daron Acemoglu & Fabrizio Zilibotti, 2001. "Productivity Differences," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 116(2), pages 563-606.
  16. Segerstrom, Paul S & Anant, T C A & Dinopoulos, Elias, 1990. "A Schumpeterian Model of the Product Life Cycle," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 80(5), pages 1077-91, December.
  17. Alwyn Young, 1998. "Growth without Scale Effects," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 106(1), pages 41-63, February.
  18. Milgrom, Paul & Roberts, John, 1994. "Comparing Equilibria," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(3), pages 441-59, June.
  19. David Popp, 2002. "Induced Innovation and Energy Prices," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 92(1), pages 160-180, March.
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