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Monday Morning Optimism 3/20/23
Why we spend less time gathering coconuts
Welcome to our Monday Morning Optimism series. To start each week, we’ll send you an economic trend/fact/idea that shows how some aspect of the economy (or world) has improved over time. Want to sponsor a Monday Morning Optimism Post? Just reach out to me (Zack) at Zfritz@sagepolicy.com.
In a Robinson Crusoe economy, Robinson is alone on an island and has to divide his time between gathering coconuts (so that he doesn’t starve) and leisure. If you look at the U.S. economy through the Robinson Crusoe framework, we’ve gotten really, really good at gathering coconuts.
In January 1948, 13.9% of the labor force worked in agriculture and related industries. Put another way, it took 14 out of every hundred workers to produce enough food for us (and the countries we trade with).
That share has plunged and, as of February 2023, stood at 1.4%. If it was still 13.9%, there would currently be about 21 million more people working in agriculture. Obviously, that means about 21 million fewer people working in other industries.
The productivity of agricultural land has also improved at a rapid clip. From 1961 to 2020, the amount of corn yielded from one hectare increased by about 177%, while wheat yields increased by about 108%. As a result, the total area of land the U.S. uses for farms has fallen sharply, down by about 51.7 million acres from 2000 to 2022.
Despite the rapid decline in agricultural labor share and land use, the U.S. set a new record for agricultural exports in 2021.
Fewer workers devoted to food production means more people can pursue their passions (noting, of course, that some people are passionate about agriculture). For instance, the share of the U.S. labor force working as a professional athlete, musician, or artist—probably the most popular childhood aspirations—has risen to 1.1% as of 2022.
It’s possible, bordering on inevitable, that we’ll have more athletes, artists, and musicians than agricultural workers within the next few decades.
Thinking about this on a global scale, the worldwide agricultural share of labor has declined from 44% in 1991 to 27% as of 2019. As this trends lower, more resources will be put toward curing diseases, inventing new products that improve our lives, and all the other things we can’t do if we’re too busy gathering coconuts.
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