Monday, November 20, 2017

Automation and Jobs: Perfect Together

The following letter appeared in the New Jersey star-Ledger on 11/15/2016:

Especially now that the election is over, I'm concerned that our thinking about American jobs is short-sighted. Eventually, new jobs in infrastructure and services won't be enough. The problem is not immigration or globalization; it's automation.

Already, robots build cars, perform surgery, check us out at stores, clean floors, help fight wars, move merchandise in warehouses, and do most office work. Soon they will drive buses, taxis and trucks. Manufacturers are slowly returning to the U.S. from the cheap labor overseas, but they're looking to hire robots here more than workers.

So it's very possible that in the future, the idea of working for a living will become a thing of the past. Full-time work will be the exception; most adults will work part time or not at all. We will need to find new ways to provide people with the resources to live on. A universal basic wage for everyone, whether he or she works or not, may be one of them. Portable benefit arrangements for gig workers as they move among jobs may be another.

Such changes will be difficult and we should start talking about them soon.

Brock Haussamen, Manasquan

I left these comments, edited and expanded for clarity:

The entire history of technological progress, which is really only about 250 years young, has been that of more production with fewer, less hard hours worked, leading to higher real wages, cheaper goods, new and/or expanded industries, and steadily rising and healthier living standards. How is this possible? More automation frees up capital, labor, and consumer dollars, providing fuel for entrepreneurs to keep the virtuous, progressive cycle going. This is basic economics.

What new industries? Who knows? No one is omniscient. What history has shown is that so long as the their is intellectual, political, and economic freedom—the social pre-conditions for progress—new industries will emerge because the fundamental source of progress is the individual human mind. Free markets liberate all of the millions and billions of individual minds. No one can predict which minds will generate the new ideas and new initiatives that lead to progress. What we do know is that there will be progress, because there are plenty of progressive minds out there, and no limit to the field of ideas, the source of that progress. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, 90%+ of the people were farmers. Today, less than 2% are. Yet, we don’t have 88% unemployment. Anyone who wants to work can find work. Where did all those jobs come from? From industries the technology worrywarts didn’t and couldn’t see coming. What we do know is that free minds and free markets generate progress.

Haussamen worries that “Full-time work will be the exception.” Even if true, what’s wrong with that? Thanks to the new wave of robotic automation, we are probably headed for a 30-hour workweek (or less) and higher living standards to replace the 40-hour workweek that replaced the 100-hour work week that barely supported pre-industrial poverty. Imagine the extra free time—your precious time, to do something else you love, whether a hobby or another “part-time” job or [fill in the blank].

Of course jobs can become obsolete, creating unemployment problems for some. But no one is entitled to a job that no one is any longer willing to pay for. Neither is anyone entitled to a guaranteed “basic income” paid for by forcing others to provide it. How will permanently paying people not to work solve anything? Who will build and maintain the machines?

Haussamen does offer one good idea: portable benefits. But automation fear is as old as human progress, and just as short-sightedly anti-progress. We need dynamic full-context thinking, not the regressive stagnant views of the Brock Haussamens of the world. The last thing we need is to “Plan now for future labor issues”—i.e., individual mind-stifling central planning.

Related Reading:

The Myth of Technological Unemployment: If the nightmare of technological unemployment were true, it would already have happened, repeatedly and massively, by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey.

The Capitalist Manifesto—Andrew Bernstein

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