ARE COMPUTERS TO...

ARE COMPUTERS TO BLAME? This morning's breakfast with Chuck Schumer was...different. The focus was, surprisingly, not on Schumer, but on Joe and Eileen, his decidedly fictional median couple, who he insisted on running every issue by in extended and questionable imaginary dialogues. It was a bit odd. It wasn't clear whether Joe and Eileen were deciding how Schumer votes, what the DSCC emphasizes, how Democratic senatorial candidates frame, or merely keeping him company when he zones out during committee hearings, but the obsession with them proved a bit discomfiting.

That, however, is a discussion for another day. During the talk, Schumer kept repeating that the central political fact of our era was that technology had transformed our world and neither political party had yet understood how to respond. Constant references to the "information age" (see Klein, Joe) are a pet peeve of mine, particularly when they're just dropped in as a conversation-killer, proof that every policy a party ever upheld is now anachronistic simply because I can view monkeys humping on a liquid crystal display. That computers have changed everything has become such resolute conventional wisdom, pundits and pols rarely have to explain how that's happened, or in what areas it's worrisome. It's enough to just mention the trend and stroke your chin worriedly.

Thankfully, Schumer's no chin-stroker, and, when pressed, he did explain what concerns him. His response centered around the "ideas" economy, exemplified because Bill Gates' innovation -- a computer operating system -- requires less assembly, and thus spurs less job creation, than Henry Ford's. That seemed suspect to me -- Windows may not take a lot of assembly (though it does require a lot of coding), but all the computers, accessories, and software that utilize it do. Matt suggested, however, that the point wasn't Gates, but the deterioration of the manufacturing sector, and the switch to the service sector, which was possibly related to the rise of information technology.

Economists have a name for this theory: It's called the Skill Biased Technical Change Hypothesis. As the thinking goes, inequality rocketed upwards starting in 1979, right about the time the first microcomputers were produced. Cause? Meet effect. Add in that more highly skilled -- and highly paid -- workers use computers, and you've got yourself a theory. The IT revolution really did change everything: It created income inequality.

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