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9.5: Long Run Costs and Production Technology

  • Page ID
    48405
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    Learning Objectives

    • Explain the impact of production technology on long run total costs

    Long Run Costs

    The long run is the period of time when all costs are variable. The long run depends on the specifics of the firm in question—it is not a precise period of time. If you have a one-year lease on your factory, then the long run is any period longer than a year, since after a year you are no longer bound by the lease. No costs are fixed in the long run. A firm can build new factories and purchase new machinery, or it can close existing facilities. In planning for the long run, the firm will compare alternative production technologies (or processes).

    In this context, technology refers to all alternative methods of combining inputs to produce outputs. It does not refer to a specific new invention like the tablet computer. The firm will search for the production technology that allows it to produce the desired level of output at the lowest cost. After all, lower costs lead to higher profits—at least if total revenues remain unchanged. Moreover, each firm must fear that if it does not seek out the lowest-cost methods of production, then it may lose sales to competitor firms that find a way to produce and sell for less.

    Choice of Production Technology

    Many tasks can be performed with a range of combinations of labor and physical capital. For example, a firm can have human beings answering phones and taking messages, or it can invest in an automated voicemail system. A firm can hire file clerks and secretaries to manage a system of paper folders and file cabinets, or it can invest in a computerized record keeping system that will require fewer employees. A firm can hire workers to push supplies around a factory on rolling carts, it can invest in motorized vehicles, or it can invest in robots that carry materials without a driver. Firms often face a choice between buying many small machines, which need a worker to run each one, or buying one larger and more expensive machine, which requires only one or two workers to operate it. In short, physical capital and labor can often substitute for each other.

    Consider the example of a private firm that is hired by local governments to clean up public parks. Three different combinations of labor and physical capital for cleaning up a single average-sized park appear in Table 1. The first production technology is heavy on workers and light on machines, while the next two technologies substitute machines for workers. Since all three of these production methods produce the same thing—one cleaned-up park—a profit-seeking firm will choose the production technology that is least expensive, given the prices of labor and machines.

    Table 1. Three Ways to Clean a Park
    Production technology 1 10 workers 2 machines
    Production technology 2 7 workers 4 machines
    Production technology 3 3 workers 7 machines

    Production technology 1 uses the most labor and least machinery, while production technology 3 uses the least labor and the most machinery. Table 2 outlines three examples of how the total cost will change with each production technology as the cost of labor changes. As the cost of labor rises from example A to B to C, the firm will choose to substitute away from labor and use more machinery.

    Table 2. Total Cost with Rising Labor Costs
    Example A: Workers cost $40, machines cost $80
    Labor Cost Machine Cost Total Cost
    Cost of technology 1 10 × $40 = $400 2 × $80 = $160 $560
    Cost of technology 2    7 × $40 = $280 4 × $80 = $320 $600
    Cost of technology 3    3 × $40 = $120 7 × $80 = $560 $680
    Example B: Workers cost $55, machines cost $80
    Labor Cost Machine Cost Total Cost
    Cost of technology 1 10 × $55 = $550 2 × $80 = $160 $710
    Cost of technology 2    7 × $55 = $385 4 × $80 = $320 $705
    Cost of technology 3    3 × $55 = $165 7 × $80 = $560 $725
    Example C: Workers cost $90, machines cost $80
    Labor Cost Machine Cost Total Cost
    Cost of technology 1 10 × $90 = $900 2 × $80 = $160 $1,060
    Cost of technology 2    7 × $90 = $630 4 × $80 = $320 $950
    Cost of technology 3    3 × $90 = $270 7 × $80 = $560 $830

    Example A shows the firm’s cost calculation when wages are $40 and machines costs are $80. In this case, technology 1 is the low-cost production technology. In example B, wages rise to $55, while the cost of machines does not change, in which case technology 2 is the low-cost production technology. If wages keep rising up to $90, while the cost of machines remains unchanged, then technology 3 clearly becomes the low-cost form of production, as example C shows.

    This example shows that as an input becomes more expensive (in this case, the labor input), firms will attempt to conserve on using that input and will instead shift to other inputs that are relatively less expensive. This pattern helps to explain why the demand curve for labor (or any input) slopes down; that is, as labor becomes relatively more expensive, profit-seeking firms will seek to substitute the use of other inputs. When a multinational employer like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s sets up a bottling plant or a restaurant in a high-wage economy like the United States, Canada, Japan, or Western Europe, it is likely to use production technologies that conserve on the number of workers and focuses more on machines. However, that same employer is likely to use production technologies with more workers and less machinery when producing in a lower-wage country like Mexico, China, or South Africa.

    One final point: an improvement in production technology is a new method of production, or a new process, that produces more output with the same amount of inputs, or it produces the same output using less inputs. Thus, an improvement in production technology leads to a reduction in production cost.

    Learning Objectives

    [glossary-page][glossary-term]production technologies: [/glossary-term]
    [glossary-definition]alternative methods of combining inputs to produce output[/glossary-definition]
    [/glossary-page]

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