The problem with prolonged stagnation is that the costs associated with it are not strictly economic in nature. There is, of course, the substantial loss in terms of opportunity cost or output that should have happened. But more than that, any society caught within the viselike grip of such malaise is a frail one subject to marginal erosion at the edges. By its end, it may not be much the same as when it started.
Some would argue that’s a good thing, a progressive thing. Rarely is that ever the case, however, as what follows lengthy economic dysfunction is rarely progress in any meaningful sense.
If there is a hysteria over inflation and an economic boom of late, it is already a curious one. Moving against it is another lurking a bit further beneath the surface. It’s as if 1980’s sci-fi has come to life, where a good many Americans and foreigners are afraid of the machines. Skynet may have been proven to be the great faceless villain for the Terminator franchise, but in 2018 it’s bordering on the ridiculous.
I don’t mean, obviously, that people are building bomb shelters for the looming nuclear holocaust once the central supercomputer becomes self-aware and thus far beyond our ability to stop its forward reaching controls (in the movies, that was 1997, anyway). The intersection of fantasy and reality has been an economic one. More and more it’s the robots in the labor market that draw such negative emotions.
Why? Or, as we ask about what’s going on in China, why now?
Believe it or not, there are still elevator operators working within the various canyons of NYC (and for other places, for all I know). Humans whose job it is to push a button, essentially. They were far more common decades ago when cheap electronics weren’t available because they either weren’t cheap or hadn’t yet been invented.
We don’t mourn the loss of elevator operators any more than we do telephone switchboard operators. We celebrate companies like Cisco who turned what was an information bottleneck of labor constraint into an opportunity that put at our fingertips more information than whole societies used to have available. That’s progress.