As someone immersed in reading about this right now, this video kind of pissed me off. First, the images from sci-fi movies and the music and his whole manner trivialize the issue. Clearly, the story is supposed to get you, the affluent Atlantic web viewer to think about your job and how of course no robot could do it any time soon. This entirely misses the point: while yes, were there true artificial intelligence there’d be the whole singularity mess to deal with, that’s not the problem right now and for the foreseeable future. Of course we need people to manage the machines now, and there are many tasks that require dexterity and people skills and other things that robots don’t have, so yes, there will be work for people to do. But even now, because of revolutions that have already occurred, there are nowhere near enough jobs for the number of people looking for them. Whether the unemployment rate in the U.S. is on its way down or not, the world economy has literally millions of people whom the job system can’t accommodate, even with globalization whereby American and multi-national companies can basically hire from anywhere in the world. No amount of retraining the displaced is going to make the numbers add up.
Thompson’s response here to Russell’s question re. why we haven’t lowered the workweek by now is that the energy freed up by past technological advances has in turn enabled more advances, which has raised the standard of living. While this is true, such advances account for only a fraction of the time spent by people’s continued long hours of working.
To think that we need not worry about the job shortage because 100% of jobs won’t be going away any time soon is to not understand the issue. To think that advances in productivity always on the whole create wealth such that enough of this goes back into creating more business opportunities that will employ anywhere near the number of people whose jobs have been made obsolete by the advances is simply unjustified. When Thompson does finally admit that technology may well eventually run us out of work, he sees that as an exciting time of wonder and the unknown and not as something that economist-types like himself should be actually planning for through policy advocation. The issue is not just about luddites being alarmist and brave technologists willing to bite the bullet and face the challenge of the unknown. Stopping technology is neither possible nor desirable, and dealing with the known problems already caused by technological progress (along with globalization and other things), we’d be in a better position to deal with job loss as it gets worse.
For a more realistic take on this issue which still exhibits a distinct lack of imagination, check out this 2012 story from Frank Koller from the PBS Newshour:
Watch Man vs. Machine: Will Human Workers Become Obsolete? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
The conflict is for most of this story cast as “can we stop technology from displacing jobs?” (and answering “no”), so therefore we have to figure out some way to help those who have been “left behind” by the new economy, and the way to do that is more education so we can all be more effective technocrats. My god, there’s an engineer shortage at some of these tech companies, so therefore with improved math training we can somehow get several million people up and ready to compete for those couple of thousand (hundred?) jobs!
Are you afraid of asteroids hitting earth? No? Then why would you worry about the end of work?
The belief and fear that automation and mechanization are about to make most human labor obsolete, and thus create unavoidable mass unemployment, seems always to be simmering below the surface, like a passive volcano. It erupts, predictably, every time our economy goes through a period of prolonged, high unemployment.
Apparently there was some uproar about the end of labor in the 90s (Rifkin’s book was a part of this.), but then the economy picked back up so we didn’t worry about it, but now we’re in a recession again, and nearly the whole of concern about this issue is about whether right now we’ve hit a point where the jobs that went away aren’t returning. I see this as somewhat beside the point; it would be great, and give us more time to make preparatory policy decisions, if Solow is right:
One reason is that there are approximately as many reasons to expect the pace of economically effective technological change to slow down as to accelerate. Another reason is that even the advanced economies of the world seem to be some distance from satiation with goods and services. And most of the world’s people live at a level of income and consumption far below what the advanced economies have already achieved. Even a poorly managed world economy should welcome a large increase in productivity given the good use that could be made of a large increase in total output.
Solow is saying that so long as the world is not yet satiated with goods and services (and could we EVER be?), then there will be market opportunities, which means jobs. However, Solow adds:
I hesitate to mention it, because it would require more competent economic management than we get, but most workers would be glad to have more leisure if their material standard of living were to improve simultaneously. Dramatic increase in productivity, from automation and robots, would make that possible.
Yes, the increase in productivity would make that possible, but as Richard Freeman points out on the PBS video, what is more likely is that you’d have a technological elite pumping out products with little need for labor beyond themselves and most of the people with no economic way then to get money to afford such products. If paradise were enabled right now by technology, without an openness to new ways to structure the job system or at least to distribute money and/or goods outside of the job system, most of us would starve in paradise.
Solow is aware of this “polarization,” which the engineers in the PBS video describe as the digital divide. He adds to this other reasons to be concerned about the gap between rich and poor that have little to do with technology:
There is some evidence, though far from definitive, that market processes are allocating an increasing share of national income to income from property or capital and a smaller share to income from work. This development, like polarization, contributes to worsening income inequality.
So what does Solow recommend?
Redistributive policy is a technical possibility, but the political track record does not suggest that it is a likely outcome. An alternative worth thinking about is some kind of democratization of capital by means other than redistribution. This could come about through the accumulation of claims to real capital by public social security funds, perhaps via special mutual funds.
So Solow recognizes that current economic patterns (whether or not they are chiefly the result of technology, though he admits that’s certainly part of it) have left many shafted, and recognizes that something needs to be done to fix this, but sees this as an issue about serving the poor, not about fixing the job system, which doesn’t seem to be on his radar. He may cast this as a matter of political reality–that it’s going to be easier to drive Congress to address the needs of real people in dire straits now than to do something proactive and more significant that would help us all in the long run–but I think both legislative steps are equally unlikely at this point.