Depreciate This: Good for the Stock Market, Bad for the Job Market

“Capital goods orders rose a robust 4.2 percent in August from July.

Core capital goods orders — nondefense bookings for items such as industrial machinery, power transmission equipment and computers, but excluding the auto and aircraft sectors — rose 1.1 percent.

‘We think large companies are so cash-rich that they can keep spending despite lower confidence. In competitive industries, the company which does not spend loses market share,’ he [Ian Shepherdson at High Frequency Economics] said.”

US capital goods orders shine in August,, Sep 28, 2011


“The business spending … may be further supported by a December agreement between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans. Companies will be able to depreciate 100 percent of capital equipment put in service by the end of this year.”

Bob Willis, Demand for U.S. Capital Goods Rises by Most in Three Months, Washington Post, Sep 28, 2011


From the standpoint of business leaders, the impact of investments in capital goods on employment opportunities is only a side effect.  If the investments contribute to job growth, they are happy to get the positive public relations bump.  If they undercut job growth, well, that’s just unavoidable collateral damage.

Yes, a burst of investments in capital goods can generate employment, but only in the short term.  Downstream, as those new computers, manufacturing robots, and assorted other high end technologies go live in workplaces, jobs will bleed out, more than offsetting short term job gains.

We now live in a world in which an accelerating global shift in the mix of humans and machines engaged in the production of goods and services is squeezing the life out of employment and income growth.  The pace at which machine energy is replacing human energy in the workplace is accelerating.  Machine energy has already replaced enormous amounts of human energy in agriculture, mining and manufacturing.  Today machine energy is increasingly replacing human energy used in thinking (evaluation and decision-making activities) in more and more fields of work, including professional fields.

Public policy cannot and should not stop innovation and the growing use of machines to supplement and replace humans in the workplace.  (Indeed, workers in many types of work are still exposed to dangers that can best be reduced by using more machines.)  But, use of tax write offs to encourage even faster displacement of workers by machines when done in the absence of a comprehensive policy approach to creating wealth and equitably distributing that wealth is extraordinarily wrongheaded.  Such unlinked use of tax write offs can only exacerbate the damage already being done to jobs and income in the U.S.

This kind of unlinked use of tax write offs is not just a U.S. practice.  Many of the world’s nations take the same approach to increasing market shares in very competitive global investment markets.  These nation by nation tax write off practices aggregate into a global economic force that increases wealth production and increases corporate profits, but also relentlessly destroys jobs and the incomes of families that depend on those jobs.

As of now the world does not have a comprehensive policy approach to managing the growth of the world economy.  More to the point, the world does not have global institutions with the power to coordinate economic policy-making across the world’s nations on behalf of the world’s people.  Thus, the ongoing global transition to more and more use of machines in place of people is both unmanaged and unmanageable.  The largely destructive aspects of this transition cannot yet be addressed and rectified.

In this context, the Obama administration’s 100 percent depreciation of new equipment can only become a 100 percent disaster for working families in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.