Want More Productivity? Be Careful What You Wish For

I don’t mean to say that technological stagnation is a good thing. But sometimes the biggest advances lead to more tragedy than comfort, especially in the short run, before we learn how to adjust to their challenges.

One of the most significant economic debates over the last decade has been over the nature of the U.S. productivity slowdown and what might someday end it.

Improving overall productivity requires individual workers to produce more. That’s usually made possible by automation or other technological advances, and commentators have settled on their favorite candidates for the next big breakthrough, from drones to self-driving vehicles to the editing of genetic codes. The sad reality, however, is that the next breakthrough already may be here, aiding the manufacture of the addictive drugs that are ruining or ending so many lives. 

Whether we like it or not, there is now a far greater variety of calming, stimulating and depressing substances, and most of them are more readily available. In these areas, productivity has not stood still, and the underlying lesson is that a productivity acceleration can be a dangerous thing. 

For instance, the new drug fentanyl is a synthetic opioid far more potent than heroin, morphine and many other earlier drugs.  Reflecting this power, overdose deaths from fentanyl and comparable synthetic opioids rose by 72 percent in the U.S. from 2014 to 2015.

Much of the illegal U.S. drug supply comes through Mexico, but sealing the border isn’t a permanent solution because some of these drugs can be made in domestic labs, another technological advance. When the War on Drugs has to target personal chemistry work at home, that’s a sign that the government probably has lost.

Yet drugs are only one piece of this story. Social media also have become much more potent, and the interaction of social media with addictive substances has brought a double whammy.

The new technological breakthrough isn’t just about making the drugs, it’s also about the mechanisms for publicizing them and delivering them. The spread of drug use isn’t only due to the appeal of the high, as there is also a social dimension through which particular drugs have contagion effects. That is, people start taking a drug because they read or hear about their peers doing the same. And while firm estimates are hard to come by, social media seem to be playing a significant role in drug promotion. Users may boast of their exploits in subtle, non-incriminating ways, or social media help users and dealers stay in touch with each other.

In a world where addictive drugs are mainly available through street gangs and violent crime, we might expect abuse to be more heavily concentrated among men, a tendency that was stronger earlier in American history. But as the supply of drugs and drug information grows, addictive substances spread more readily to women too. And since women on average are smaller and weigh less, a given dose of a highly addictive substance often harms them more.

There’s also evidence that women are more likely than before to engage in heavy drinking; since 1999, alcohol-related deaths for women ages 35 to 54 have more than doubled. Again, social media help target the product more effectively, and alcohol is available in more diverse forms. When rough bars were a more important way of learning about liquor, that may have helped limit drinking habits to the male population to a greater degree.

One big tech story over the last year has been how automation takes away manufacturing jobs. Very often those jobs have been held by men, and indeed the labor-force participation rate for working-age males has been falling. It is less commonly remarked that two of the other big technological breakthroughs of our time -- more and stronger addictive substances and social media -- often have a disproportionate impact on women. When it comes to life expectancy, white, middle-aged American women have been losers as of late.

The U.S. medical establishment may be at fault as well. One estimate found that white women were five times more likely than white men to receive prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs combined with prescriptions for painkillers, a potentially deadly mix. As for white women between the ages of 50 and 64, almost one in four are receiving treatment with antidepressants. Again, in part that stems from better marketing to both the doctors and the patients.

I don’t mean to say that technological stagnation is a good thing. But sometimes the biggest advances lead to more tragedy than comfort, especially in the short run, before we learn how to adjust to their challenges. To paraphrase Peter Thiel, they promised us flying cars, and what we got was a bunch of stoned characters, and more than 140 of them. Beware the end of the productivity slowdown.