Without humanistic, redistributive approach, we have much to fear from current automation

The Pollyannas and Panglosses among us like to look back at past instances of the automation of production or service-delivery as proof that the economy adjusts and people find newer, better-paying and more fulfilling jobs. A recent example is Catherine Rampell’s article in yesterday’s New York Times “Sunday Review” section titled “Raging (Again) Against the Robots.”

In her rambling, Rampell trots out the usual fictional suspects: The Golem, Capek’s R.U.R., Kurt Vonnegut’s Piano Player. To these literary manifestations of the fear of robots, she adds cursory mentions of the agricultural and software revolutions. A flippant approach to this mostly fictional material trivializes the problems caused by automation.

While it is true that people eventually did get better jobs after farming was mechanized, the argument is absurd that warnings against automation in the past proved false and therefore the current warnings will not pan out either. History does not repeat the past in the same way all the time. Just because something worked out in the past doesn’t mean it will work out again.

There are many differences between automating farming and manufacturing in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the current automating of engineering, medical, retail and teaching jobs in the early part of the 21st century:

  • The jobs replaced in the industrial revolution were tedious and back-breaking physical labor. The current wave of machines replaces primarily “brain” jobs filled by middle class professionals and paraprofessionals.
  • There were few limits in the world markets in the 19th century, so jobs were created by expanding markets. Now there are many limits to market expansion, including increased competition from other countries and the limits to growth imposed by the dual impact of climate disruption and resource scarcity.
  • The historical means to absorb excess labor no longer exists. The citizens of western democracy and many totalitarian regimes such as China and Iran will no longer tolerate a high number of war casualties. There are few habitable wildernesses like the American West to which excess populations can move.

There is also the question: does this new technology increase the quality of life or does it merely make the process cheaper? Exhibit #1 against the mindless implementation of technology is the rush to on-line university classes.  In how many ways is a live class better? The ability to interact spontaneously off on fruitful tangents. The greater need to pay attention. The greater difficulty in cheating.  It also keeps more teachers working.

We’ve discovered that we can take technology too far in many realms, even farming, which, with the return to small, local farms and the increase in organic farming, has seen some reverse substitution of human labor and thought power for technology in recent decades.

We also have to ask ourselves what we can do to help the workers affected by the current wave of automation. Their jobs are never coming back, and to a large extent the jobs being created in our slowly gathering economic recovery are low-paying.

Either more people are going to fall out of the middle class and into poverty or we are going to have to take a look at how we split the profits resulting from the increased productivity of knowledge-based processes such as teaching, engineering and health care.  It starts with raising the minimum wage, which leads to higher wages at all levels. Instead of trying to destroy teachers unions with charter schools and pension givebacks, our public policies should foster increased unionization of other knowledge workers, since unions raise the incomes of workers. We should also start thinking seriously about lowering the hours considered full-time for a job to 30 a week without a decrease in gross pay.

The other alternative is to face a U.S. economy in which virtually everyone is poor except for a handful of rich people and a sprinkling of middle class and upper middle class professionals.

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