Dean Rohrer

Services without Tears

A famous claim in economics is that the costs of services (such as health care and education) tend to increase relative to the costs of goods (such as food, oil, and machinery). But a sharp decline in the costs of health care, education, and other services is now possible, thanks to the ongoing revolution in information and communications technology.

NEW YORK – A famous claim in economics is that the cost of services (such as health care and education) tends to increase relative to the cost of goods (such as food, oil, and machinery). This seems right: people around the world can barely afford the rising health-care and school-tuition costs they currently face – costs that seem to increase each year faster than overall inflation. But a sharp decline in the costs of health care, education, and other services is now possible, thanks to the ongoing information and communications technology (ICT) revolution.

The cost of services compared to the cost of goods depends on productivity. If farmers become much better at growing food while teachers become little better at teaching kids, the cost of food will tend to fall relative to the cost of education. Moreover, the proportion of the population engaged in farming will tend to fall, since fewer farmers are needed to feed the entire country.

This is the long-term pattern that we’ve seen: the share of the workforce in goods production has declined over time, while the cost of goods has fallen relative to that of services. In the United States, around 4% of the population in 1950 was employed in agriculture, 38% in industry (including mining, construction, and manufacturing), and 58% in services. By 2010, the proportions were roughly 2%, 17%, and 81%, respectively. In the meantime, health-care and tuition costs have soared, along with the costs of many other services.

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