​Ben Stein: Cell phones are a drag on the economy

Late last week the Commerce Department saidthe economy grew at an annual rate of just 2.3 percent during April, May and June. Why has the economy been growing so slowly for so long? Our Contributor Ben Stein thinks he knows part of the answer:

One of the mysteries of modern economics is why there has been a stall in the rate of increase of worker productivity.

Worker productivity is how much each worker produces per unit of time. It rose very rapidly for decades after 1941, and, recently, the rate of rise has been tepid.

There have been many possible explanations for this slowdown: Changing composition of the labor force; Far Eastern competition; allegedly excessive regulation. None of these has been proved.

I would like to suggest another one: The cell phone. Or the smartphone, if you like.

Virtually unknown a couple of decades ago, the cell phone (or smartphone) is now a virtual body part.

I did a bit of research (on my phone, of course), and apparently estimates vary wildly, but Americans spend a large part of the day on his or her cell phones.

Reports say Americans check their phone -- just checking them -- 150 times per day. There are literally billions of texts sent per day in the U.S. The ordinary American sends roughly 40 texts per day by some estimates; others are much higher. The phone is the life blood for Americans now.

To be sure, some of these calls are about business and are productive. But if half the calls are personal, that's an immense slice of the day gone!

Don't get me wrong. These calls sometimes produce happiness. They are not just waste motion. But they don't produce anything you can count. They're an extremely expanded version of water cooler gossip -- but HUGELY expanded.

If this many people (there are nearly 300 million cells in the USA) are on the line this much, some of it has to come out of production.

If we're gossiping, we're not working, and the smartphone in many ways is just a gossip machine. Gossip is fun, but it ain't money, and again, you can't count it.

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