I'm not feeling reassured here
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Derek Thompson, one of my favorite journalists, has a post
worth reading that pushes back against the job loss from automation-- but also read the comments, which make a lot of good rebuttal's to what Thompson is saying. Part of what I like best about Thompson is that he is a remarkably even-keeled guy, a rarity in a newsmedia that gravitates towards the euphoric and the apocalyptic. It's especially unusual in a guy who writes often about tech, and a guy with a generally neoliberal flavor, as they tend to be the ones in a rush to ignore human suffering. Optimism that doesn't degrade into absurd technoutopianism, or that doesn't discount the incredible hardships of the poor, is a rarity these days. I appreciate his sobriety, and I don't know, maybe he's right. But there seems to be a lot of wishful "hey, it's probably not gonna happen soon" going on there. Worth saying, too, is that Thompson focuses exclusively on employment rate, and doesn't consider job quality, which to my lights is equally important. As his colleague Matt O'Brien points out
, automation doesn't have to lead to mass joblessness to severely undermine the conditions for workers.
Seriously, read the comments of Thompson's post. Tons of insight there.
One thing I'd like to point out is that even if we merely have a change in the skills or temperament needed for some jobs, rather than just the elimination of jobs, that essentially renders large swaths of people unemployable. Jobs that interface significantly with technology (which is to say, jobs) typically require significant retraining for people who have been laid off from other careers. People who can't adjust-- or, even worse, people who aren't given the opportunity to adjust because employers assume they can't-- are left behind, and fall into the precarious lives that so many are suffering through right now. As one of the commenters on the post points out, economists tend to think of jobs in net; if 5,000 people are laid off, and then 5,000 jobs added, hey, that's balance. But the original 5,000 people are very unlikely to be significantly represented within the 5,000 newly employed, and the longer a person is unemployed, the harder and harder it is for them to eventually find work.
Matt Yglesias continues a recent trend in writing a post
on this issue that is, well, bizarre. His Slate blog has taken a turn for the odd in general lately. In the post-- which, in keeping with another recent trend of moving towards a positively Mickey Kaus-like brevity, runs all of two paragraphs-- simply says that technology that eliminates jobs has always been with us and that it's strange to talk about it now. Well, yeah-- it's a long term trend. But as is the case with global warming, the fact that the trend is old says nothing about whether it is accelerating or whether we are reaching an inflection point that will undermine our basic way of life. I'm not sure what Yglesias thought is saying here. The fact that the trend has been going on for a long time doesn't mean it isn't causing massive human suffering. But suffering hasn't really been Yglesias's beat lately.
. If it isn't clear, I'm mostly interested in these issues because they seem like a useful frame to discuss the long-term trend of less and less income going to labor, and in broader strokes, the way in which our society has become a massive machine for generating wealth for those at the top. I find the "income inequality" conversation to be frustrating on a variety of levels, in large part because it is so well worn. I'm trying to address how we think our society is supposed to function, and what happens when one of the basic planks starts to degrade. Contrary to Thompson and Yglesias, I don't think it's too early to think things through, even if these problems don't start to affect us in mass in the near future. We have a habit of deciding problems are problems too late rather than too soon.