Will automation render human workers obsolete? Daniel Akst explains

Dilbert on automationY’all know I’m a big fan of reading stuff and then summarizing it. I’ve been doing CliffsNotes for books with my 1-page cheatsheets, and for startup articles with 1-read-a-day.

Wilson Quarterly is a new find. Their articles are long (3,000+ words), well-researched, and written in a “scholarly journalist” voice like The Economist.

Daniel Akst writes the weekly R&D column for WSJ. His essay, Automation Anxiety, is perfectly timed with some questions on my mind, such as:

  • As U.S. jobs are increasingly concentrated in technology and knowledge, what happens to workers who are left behind?
  • How will the U.S. maintain its global leadership, as we increasingly see signs of strain in its economy, its cultural influence, and its moral authority?
  • What will the “job of the future” look like?
  • How many of today’s jobs will be automated, and in what way?

My bias is to write down insights that are new to me, as opposed to what I think will be most interesting to the widest swath of readers. Treat it like a Costco free sample: if you enjoy it, go and read the whole thing.

CliffsNotes for Automation Anxiety by Daniel Akst

His main question:

But now, with the advent of machines that are infinitely more intelligent and powerful than most people could have imagined a century ago, has the day finally come when technology will leave millions of us permanently displaced?

A big part of his thesis:

Notice Bloom’s insights: first, that technology could obviate arduous manual labor; second, that this would cost somebody a job; and third, that it would also create a job, but for a different person altogether.

Some stats

  • US shed 6.3mm manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2010
  • Unemployment is at 7.5%, 4 years after our “Great Recession”

Akst goes on to compare our situation today to similar automation and job market fears in the 1950s and 1960s (the Kennedy, LBJ eras). Unemployment was high (hitting 7% at one point)

The prominent economist Robert Heilbroner argued that rapid technological change had supercharged productivity in agriculture and manufacturing, and now threatened “a whole new group of skills—the sorting, filing, checking, calculating, remembering, comparing, okaying skills—that are the special preserve of the office worker.”

And here we get to the second piece of Akst’s argument:

some of its most important effects were felt not in the economic realm but in the arena of social change

In the 1950s and 60s, we mistakenly assumed that there was a ceiling to demand for goods and services (hah!):

Although the principle that human wants are insatiable is enshrined in every introductory economics course, it was somehow forgotten by intellectuals who themselves probably weren’t very materialistic, and who might only have been dimly aware of the great slouching beasts of retailing—the new shopping malls—going up on the edge of town

Interestingly, there was also concern that – with consistently shorter working days – we’d hit a point where we hardly worked at all. What would we do with the leisure time??

In the first half of the 20th century, the number of hours worked per week had shrunk by a quarter for the average worker, and in 1967 the futurist Herman Kahn declared that this trend would continue, predicting a four-day work week—and 13 weeks of vacation.

Some writers got it right:

Simon wrote, “The world’s problems in this generation and the next are problems of scarcity, not of intolerable abundance. The bogeyman of automation consumes worrying capacity that should be saved for real problems—like population, poverty, the Bomb, and our own neuroses.”

The people most affected were middle-aged, working class men (as they are today):

The economists Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney found that from 1969 to 2009, the median earnings of men ages 25 to 64 dropped by 28 percent after inflation. For those without a high school diploma, the drop was 66 percent. This is to say nothing of lost pensions and health insurance.

Why such declines? #1, entrance of women and immigrants into the workforce, #2, increased global trade, #3, rising use of technology

In fact, the proportion of men who were not in the formal labor force tripled from 1960 to 2009, to a remarkable 18 percent

Sociologist Daniel Bell was particularly prescient:

Bell acknowledged that there would be disruptions. And he was accurate about their nature, writing that “many workers, particularly older ones, may find it difficult ever again to find suitable jobs. It is also likely that small geographical pockets of the United States may find themselves becoming ‘depressed areas’ as old industries fade or are moved away.”

Bell also foretold the social impact of such changes:

“creating a new salariat instead of a proletariat, as automated processes reduce[d] the number of industrial workers required.” He accurately foresaw a world in which “muscular fatigue [would be] replaced by mental tension”

Like some thinkers in the 50s and 60s, Akst believes that the big problem is (re)distribution:

“The economy of abundance can sustain all citizens in comfort and economic security whether or not they engage in what is commonly reckoned as work,” the committee continued, arguing for “an unqualified commitment to provide every individual and every family with an adequate income as a matter of right.”

Why? Because automation presents us with a windfall, and the hard question is how it’s shared:

This doesn’t mean we must embrace the utopianism of the Triple Revolution manifesto or return to the despised system of open-ended welfare abolished during the Clinton years. But inevitably, if only to maintain social peace, it will mean a movement toward some of the universal programs—medical coverage, long-term care insurance, low-cost access to higher education—that have helped other advanced countries shelter their work forces from economic shocks better than the United States has, and control costs while they’re at it.

And a couple insightful comments:

It seems to me that unless we can invent a new kind of labour – post-physical, post-mental – we will have to come up with a new kind of wealth creation mechanism that allows for 1) the use of fewer workers and 2) a fair distribution of the wealth created. – idespair

Akst devotes an anemic, apologetic two paragraphs to the central fact of his essay – the adaptation required this time is fundamentally political rather than technological. And to most eyes that political solution can hardly be described as anything but radical. – civisisus

Thanks for reading, folks. Here’s the full article.

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