The Fatal Conceit Continues

President Barack Obama recently sat down with the Today Show’s Ann Curry to discuss jobs and private sector hiring.  Curry asked him why during a time of “record profits” for corporations they had only spent 2% more toward hiring new workers but 26% percent more on new equipment.

Obama explained how structural economic changes have shifted businesses toward using more equipment and technology, explaining how “businesses have learned to be more efficient with fewer workers” in response to the recession. He provided some examples: “You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.”

Much coverage of the interview falsely claimed that Obama blamed technology, or ATMs for high unemployment. This is simply untrue. He did not claim that technology is driving unemployment, but instead that employment is changing as technology increases the productivity of labor.

The interview did reveal that his alleged solution to the problem is more government control of the economy, administered by a panel of experts: “What we have to do now, and this is what the jobs council is all about, is identifying where the jobs for the future are going to be, how do we make sure that there’s a match between what people are getting trained for and the jobs that exist, how do we make sure that capital is flowing in those places with the greatest opportunity.” This may sound good in theory, yet the question remains: how does he know where the jobs of the future are going to be, and how can he determine which job training will prove most valuable, and how can he know which areas have the greatest opportunity, and how can he know where to send capital?

It is not likely that the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, made up of about two dozen bright and capable business men and women, will have sufficient knowledge either to determine where capital should flow or where the future jobs will be, or what job training will be best rewarded. Private investors, risking their own capital, cannot consistently predict what markets will succeed or which technologies will flourish. How can we expect a council of political appointees wagering other people’s money to do any better?

Nobel laureate FA Hayek discussed the problems associated with central economic planning in his seminal American Economic Review article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” and in his book The Fatal Conceit. Hayek argued that the economy is a very complex system, fueled by the knowledge and actions of millions of independent actors. Hayek warned that any plan to centrally control production would be doomed to inevitable failure because central planners lack sufficient information to ensure that supply equals demand in every market in the economy. The abysmal standard of living and collapse of the Soviet Union validated Hayek’s theory of the impossibility of planning something as complex as a country’s economy.

Clearly, Obama is not suggesting anything nearly as extreme as centrally planned production. Nevertheless, President Obama makes his assumptions clear in this interview that he believes this jobs council holds the capacity to gain sufficient knowledge to help guide capital investments and encourage job creation in the areas they identify. Instead of having our President and a few smart individuals making decisions with limited information, we could allow the market mechanism, made up of millions of individual decision markers, to transmit the information and knowledge necessary for market actors to guide capital appropriately.

For President Obama to assume that he and or his council have the knowledge sufficient to make these determinations is a fatal conceit.