The economic news, not just in Utah but nationwide, seems almost too good to be true. Low unemployment. Sustained growth. Low inflation. A healthy domestic stock market despite the Asian jitters. And, most amazingly, a balanced federal budget years earlier than anyone expected.
This period just might be remembered as a golden era in U.S. economic history.But can it last? I think it can. Mind you, I'm no economist or futurist, so read me at your own risk. But I've been looking at what economists, futurists and technology gurus are saying, and I believe solid economic expansion can continue, especially if we keep government growth, spending and regulation in check and otherwise don't do anything really stupid.
Advanced technology is driving fundamental changes in the economy, boosting efficiency and productivity in every industry, and we're only in the very early stages of the revolution.
In many respects, what's happening now can be compared to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. A furniture craftsman who could make a chair a day using hand tools could make a dozen a day using lathes and power tools. With robotic and computer technologies, the same worker now might make a hundred chairs.
With the rise in productivity, greater wealth is created, and standards of living are vastly improved.
Today, we enjoy the use of several exciting new tools that together are improving productivity and creating wealth:
- Incredibly powerful, but amazingly inexpensive, computers, now becoming a part of nearly every device and product imaginable.
- High-bandwidth networking, both wired and wireless, of homes, schools, offices and all sorts of devices through fiber optics, coaxial cable, copper wire, satellites and various other wireless means. Connecting everyone and everything and being able to instantly share data, graphics, text, video and audio means rapid improvements in efficiency and productivity.
- Amazingly useful and powerful software that accomplishes tasks hardly imagined only a few years ago.
As efficiency and productivity continue to improve, the economy will stay strong and standards of living will continue to rise.
And we're only in the Model T stage of the Information Revolution.
Wait until commerce really moves online. Wait until the Internet really becomes the marketplace. Wait until we really have high-bandwidth connectivity everywhere. Wait until the cheap "Internet appliances" become commonplace. Wait until we really are living the "Web lifestyle." The possibilities are mind-boggling.
Here's a simple example, courtesy of Governing Magazine, of something that's happening now. In Massachusetts, you don't have to deal with people any more to pay a parking ticket or other citation, renew your registration or obtain a duplicate registration or a special license plate.
You just get on the Internet, go to the Motor Vehicles Web site, fill in necessary information (including credit card payment), and you're done. The order goes into a special computer server dedicated to secure business transactions. You get an immediate e-mail confirmation for all in-formation submitted. All information is encrypted and decrypted for security.
The computer processes your registration renewal, then you get a message confirming the completed transaction or informing you of a problem, like an incorrect credit card or vehicle registration number.
Throughout the process, no employee is involved. Even the procedure of sending your license plate decal through the mail is automated. The system electronically prints out renewals and registrations; a machine stuffs them in envelopes, prints a label and slaps it on and puts it in the mail basket.
"The only person who touches this is the postman," said a Massachusetts official.
Most everything - hardware, soft-ware, connectivity, regulatory structure - is in place to facilitate such electronic commerce in all enterprises. Multiply the productivity improvements in the Mas-sachusetts experience manyfold as other states, local governments and private businesses adopt similar processes for all sorts of transactions, and you can see the amazing potential.
An official at Public Technology Inc., which represents several local government associations, said the payoff is certainly compelling. "If you contrast what a government financial transaction looks like now . . . with what it could be, the electronic possibilities are phenomenal."
Doing electronic commerce, he said, would allow businesses and governments to "do away with half the procurement department and the entire accounts payable department. It's never having to write a check again if it's really implemented."
That's just one minor example of the coming productivity and innovation surge as all sectors of society use computer technology and telecommunications to improve, restructure and eliminate present labor-intensive processes.
As in any transition from one era to another, there will be setbacks, disruptions and dislocations. All won't go smoothly. The buggy-whip makers of today will have to find new jobs. Government intervention and regulation could slow down the revolution.
But as Andrew Grove of Intel once said, "What can be done will be done." Job growth will outpace job loss. As productivity improves, salaries will rise. Living standards will improve overall.
So that's my rosy, non-expert prognostication on the economy. Hang on to this column for a few years and see how I do.