This is from a description of new research forthcoming in the American Economic Review, “The Internet and Local Wages: A Puzzle,” by Avi Goldfarb, Chris Forman and Shane Greenstein:
What has the Internet Done for the Economy?, Kellogg Insight: ...There is widespread optimism among media commentators and policy makers that the Internet erases geographic and socioeconomic boundaries. The Death of Distance and The World Is Flat, two books that espouse that rosy view, were bestsellers. But in the early days of the Internet, the income gap between the upper and middle classes actually began to grow. “We thought it was just a very natural question to ask: is the Internet responsible?” Greenstein says.
The researchers studied trends from 1995 to 2000 in several large sets of data, including the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages—which gives county-level information on average weekly wages and employment—and the Harte Hanks Market Intelligence Computer Intelligence Technology Database, which holds survey information about how firms use the Internet. In total, the researchers included relevant data for nearly 87,000 private companies with more than 100 employees each. Based on their older work, they focused only on advanced Internet technologies.
Out of about 3,000 counties in the U.S., in only 163 did business adoption of Internet technologies correlate with wage and employment growth, the study found. All of these counties had populations above 150,000 and were in the top quarter of income and education levels before 1995. Between 1995 and 2000, they showed a 28 percent average increase in wages, compared with a 20 percent increase in other counties (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Advanced Internet investment and wage growth by county type.
Why did the Internet make such big waves in these few areas? Greenstein believes the reason was that these areas already had sophisticated companies and the communications infrastructure needed to seize on the Internet’s opportunities. But there are other possibilities. The impact could have been due to a well-known phenomenon called “biased technical change,” which means that new technologies can thrive only in places with skilled workers who know how to use them. Or it could have been because cities brought certain advantages—denser labor markets, better communication, tougher competition—than more remote areas.
“Each one of those explanations is plausible in our data, and probably explains a piece of it. But none of them by themselves can explain the whole story,” Greenstein says. “It’s really a puzzle.” ...