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Will Robots Put Everyone Out of Work? by Sandy Ikeda

Will workplace automation make the rich richer and doom the poor?

That could happen soon, warns Paul Solman, economics correspondent for PBS NewsHour. He’s talking to Jerry Kaplan, author of a new book that seems to combine Luddism with fears about inequality.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the age-old fear of displaced workers, says Kaplan, is finally, irrevocably upon us.

JERRY KAPLAN: What happens to people who simply can’t acquire or don’t have the skills that are going to be needed in the new economy?

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, what is going to happen to them?

JERRY KAPLAN: We’re going to see much worse income inequality. And unless we take some humanitarian actions, the truth is, they’re going to starve and live in poverty and then die.

PAUL SOLMAN: Kaplan offers that grim prognosis in a new book, Humans Need Not Apply. He knows, of course, that automation has been replacing labor for 200 years or more, for decades, eliminating relatively high-paying factory jobs in America, and that new jobs have more than kept pace, but not anymore, he says.

I haven’t read Kaplan’s book, but you can get a sense of the issue from this video.

The  fear is that, unlike the past when displaced workers could learn new skills for a different industry, advanced “thinking machines” will soon fill even highly skilled positions, making it that much harder to find a job that pays a decent wage. And while the Luddite argument assumes that the number of jobs in an economy is fixed, the fear now is that whatever jobs may be created will simply be filled by even smarter machines.

This new spin sounds different, but it’s essentially the same old Luddite fallacy on two levels. First, while it’s true that machinery frequently substitutes for labor in the short term, automation tends to complement labor in the long term; and, second, the primary purpose of markets is not to create jobs per se, it is to create successful ventures by satisfying human wants and needs.

While I understand that Kaplan offers some market-oriented solutions, the mainstream media has emphasized the more alarmist aspects of his thesis. The Solmans of the world would like the government to respond with regulations to slow or prevent the introduction of artificial intelligence — or to at least subsidize the kind of major labor-force adjustments that such changes appear to demand.

Short-Term Substitutes, Long-Term Complements

Fortunately, Henry Hazlitt long ago worked out in a clear, careful, and sympathetic way the consequences of innovations on employment in his classic book, Economics in One Lesson. Here’s a brief outline of the chapter relevant to our discussion, “The Curse of Machinery”:

(As Hazlitt notes, not all innovations are “labor-saving.” Many simply improve the quality of output, but let’s put that to one side. Let’s also put aside the very real problem that raising the minimum wage will artificially accelerate the trend toward automation.)

Suppose a person who owns a coat-making business invests in a new machine that makes the same number of coats with half the workers. (Assume for now that all employees work eight-hour days and earn the going wage.) What’s easy to see is that, say, 50 people are laid off; what’s harder to see is that other people will be hired to build that new machine. If the new machine does reduce the business’s cost, however, then presumably it takes fewer than 50 people to build it. If it takes, say, 30 people, there still appears to be a net loss of 20 jobs overall.

But the story doesn’t end there. Assuming the owner doesn’t lower her price for the coats she sells, Hazlitt notes that there are three things she can do with the resulting profit. She can use it to invest in her own business, to invest in some other business, or to spend on consumption goods for herself and others. Whichever she does means more production and thus more employment elsewhere.

Moreover, competition in the coat industry will likely lead her rivals to adopt the labor-saving machinery and to produce more coats. Buying more machines means more employment in the machine-making industry, and producing more coats will, other things equal, lower the price of coats.

Now, buying more machines will probably mean she has to hire more workers to operate or maintain them, and lower coat prices mean that consumers will have more disposable income to spend on goods in general, including coats.

The overall effect is to increase the demand for labor and the number of jobs, which conforms to our historical experience in many industries. So, if all you see are the 50 people initially laid off, well, you’ve missed most of the story.

Despite claims to the contrary, it’s really no different in the case of artificial intelligence.

Machines might substitute for labor in the short term, but in the long term they complement labor and increase its productivity. Yes, new machines used in production will be more sophisticated and do more things than the old ones, but that shouldn’t be surprising; that’s what new machines have done throughout history.

And as I’ve written before in “The Breezes of Creative Destruction,” it usually takes several years for an innovation — even something as currently ubiquitous as smartphones — to permeate an economy. (I would guess that we each could name several people who don’t own one.) This gives people time to adjust by moving, learning new skills, and making new connections. Hazlitt recognizes that not everyone will adjust fully to the new situation, perhaps because of age or disability. He responds,

It is altogether proper — it is, in fact, essential to a full understanding of the problem — that the plight of these groups be recognized, that they be dealt with sympathetically, and that we try to see whether some of the gains from this specialized progress cannot be used to help the victims find a productive role elsewhere.

I’m pretty sure Hazlitt means that voluntary, noncoercive actions and organizations should take the lead in filling this compassionate role.

In any case, what works at the level of a single industry also works across all industries. The same processes that Hazlitt describes will operate as long as markets are left free to adjust. Using government intervention to deliberately stifle change may save the jobs we see, but it will destroy the many more jobs that we don’t see — and worse.

More Jobs, Less Work, Greater Well-Being

Being able to contribute to making one’s own living is probably essential to human happiness. And economic development has indeed meant that we’ve been spending less time working.

Although it’s hard to calculate accurately how many hours per week our ancestors worked — and some claim that people in preindustrial society had more leisure time than industrial workers — the best estimate is that the work week in the United States fell from about 70 hours in 1850 to about 40 hours today. Has this been a bad thing? Has working less led to human misery? Given the track record of relatively free markets, that’s a strange question to ask.

Take, for example, this video by Swedish doctor Hans Rosling about his mother’s washing machine. It’s a wonderful explanation of how this particular machine, sophisticated for its day, enabled his mother to read to him, which helped him to then become a successful scientist.

I had lunch with someone who was recently laid off and whose husband has a fulfilling but low-paying job. Despite this relatively low family income, she was able to fly to New York for a weekend to attend a U2 concert, take a class at an upscale yoga studio in Manhattan, and share a vegan lunch with an old friend. Our grandparents would have been dumbfounded!

As British journalist Matt Ridley puts it in his book The Rational Optimist,

Innovation changes the world but only because it aids the elaboration of the division of labor and encourages the division of time. Forget wars, religions, famines and poems for the moment. This is history’s greatest theme: the metastasis of exchange, specialization and the invention it has called forth, the “creation” of time.

The great accomplishment of the free market is not that it creates jobs (which it does) but that it gives us the time to promote our well-being and to accomplish things no one thought possible.

If using robots raises the productivity of labor, increases output, and expands the amount, quality, and variety of goods each of us can consume — and also lowers the hours we have to work — what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with working less and having the time to promote the well-being of ourselves and of others?

In a system where people are free to innovate and to adjust to innovation, there will always be enough jobs for whoever wants one; we just won’t need to work as hard in them.

Sandy Ikeda
Sandy Ikeda

Sandy Ikeda is a professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

Against Eco-pessimism: Half a Century of False Bad News by Matt Ridley

Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment (Laudato Sii) warns of the coming environmental catastrophe (“unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us”).  It’s the latest entry in a long literary tradition of environmental doomsday warnings.

In contrast, Matt Ridley, bestselling author of GenomeThe Agile Gene, and The Rational Optimist, who also received the 2012 Julian Simon Memorial Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says this outlook has proven wrong time again. This is the full text of his acceptance speech. Video is embedded below.

It is now 32 years, nearly a third of a century, since Julian Simon nailed his theses to the door of the eco-pessimist church by publishing his famous article in Science magazine: “Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News.”

It is also 40 years since The Limits to Growth and 50 years since Silent Spring, plenty long enough to reflect on whether the world has conformed to Malthusian pessimism or Simonian optimism.

Before I go on, I want to remind you just how viciously Simon was attacked for saying that he thought the bad news was being exaggerated and the good news downplayed.

Verbally at least Simon’s treatment was every bit as rough as Martin Luther’s. Simon was called an imbecile, a moron, silly, ignorant, a flat-earther, a member of the far right, a Marxist.

“Could the editors have found someone to review Simon’s manuscript who had to take off his shoes to count to 20?” said Paul Ehrlich.

Erhlich together with John Holdren then launched a blistering critique, accusing Simon of lying about electricity prices having fallen. It turned out they were basing their criticism on a typo in a table, as Simon discovered by calling the table’s author. To which Ehrlich replied: “what scientist would phone the author of a standard source to make sure there were no typos in a series of numbers?”

Answer: one who likes to get his facts right.

Yet for all the invective, his critics have never laid a glove on Julian Simon then or later. I cannot think of a single significant fact, data point or even prediction where he was eventually proved badly wrong. There may be a few trivia that went wrong, but the big things are all right. Read that 1980 article again today and you will see what I mean.

I want to draw a few lessons from Julian Simon’s battle with the Malthusian minotaur, and from my own foolhardy decision to follow in his footsteps – and those of Bjorn Lomborg, Ron Bailey, Indur Goklany, Ian Murray, Myron Ebell and others – into the labyrinth a couple of decades later.

Consider the words of the publisher’s summary of The Limits to Growth: “Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea, and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts.”

Again and again Simon was right and his critics were wrong.

Would it not be nice if just one of those people who called him names piped up and admitted it? We optimists have won every intellectual argument and yet we have made no difference at all. My daughter’s textbooks trot out the same old Malthusian dirge as mine did.

What makes it so hard to get the message across?

I think it boils down to five adjectives: ahistorical, finite, static, vested and complacent. The eco-pessimist view ignores history, misunderstands finiteness, thinks statically, has a vested interest in doom and is complacent about innovation.

People have very short memories. They are not just ignoring, but unaware of, the poor track record of eco-pessimists. For me, the fact that each of the scares I mentioned above was taken very seriously at the time, attracting the solemn endorsement of the great and the good, should prompt real skepticism about global warming claims today.

That’s what motivated me to start asking to see the actual evidence about climate change. When I did so I could not find one piece of data – as opposed to a model – that shows either unprecedented change or change is that is anywhere close to causing real harm.

Yet when I made this point to a climate scientist recently, he promptly and cheerily said that “the fact that people have been wrong before does not make them wrong this time,” as if this somehow settled the matter for good.

Second, it is enormously hard for people to grasp Simon’s argument that “Incredible as it may seem at first, the term ‘finite’ is not only inappropriate but downright misleading in the context of natural resources.”

He went on: “Because we find new lodes, invent better production methods and discover new substitutes, the ultimate constraint upon our capacity to enjoy unlimited raw materials at acceptable prices is knowledge.” This is a profoundly counterintuitive point.

Yet was there ever a better demonstration of this truth than the shale gas revolution? Shale gas was always there; but what made it a resource, as opposed to not a resource, was knowledge – the practical know-how developed by George Mitchell in Texas. This has transformed the energy picture of the world.

Besides, as I have noted elsewhere, it’s the renewable – infinite – resources that have a habit of running out: whales, white pine forests, buffalo. It’s a startling fact, but no non-renewable resource has yet come close to exhaustion, whereas lots of renewable ones have.

And by the way, have you noticed something about fossil fuels – we are the only creatures that use them. What this means is that when you use oil, coal or gas, you are not competing with other species. When you use timber, or crops or tide, or hydro or even wind, you are.

There is absolutely no doubt that the world’s policy of encouraging the use of bio-energy, whether in the form of timber or ethanol, is bad for wildlife – it competes with wildlife for land, or wood or food.

Imagine a world in which we relied on crops and wood for all our energy and then along comes somebody and says here’s this stuff underground that we can use instead, so we don’t have to steal the biosphere’s lunch.

Imagine no more. That’s precisely what did happen in the industrial revolution.

Third, the Malthusian view is fundamentally static. Julian Simon’s view is fundamentally dynamic. Again and again when I argue with greens I find that they simply do not grasp the reflexive nature of the world, the way in which prices cause the substitution of resources or the dynamic properties of ecosystems – the word equilibrium has no place in ecology.

Take malaria. The eco-pessimists insisted until recently that malaria must get worse in a warming 21st century world. But, as Paul Reiter kept telling them to no avail, this is nonsense. Malaria disappeared from North America, Russia and Europe and retreated dramatically in South America, Asia and Africa in the twentieth century even as the world warmed.

That’s not because the world got less congenial to mosquitoes. It’s because we moved indoors and drained the swamps and used DDT and malaria medications and so on. Human beings are a moving target. They adapt.

But, my fourth point, another reason Simon’s argument fell on stony ground is that so many people had and have a vested interest in doom. Though they hate to admit it, the environmental movement and the scientific community are vigorous, healthy, competitive, cut-throat, free markets in which corporate leviathans compete for donations, grants, subsidies and publicity. The best way of getting all three is to sound the alarm. If it bleeds it leads. Good news is no news.

Imagine how much money you would get if you put out an advert saying: “we now think climate change will be mild and slow, none the less please donate”. The sums concerned are truly staggering. Greenpeace and WWF, the General Motors and Exxon of the green movement, between them raise and spend a billion dollars a year globally. WWF spends $68m alone on educational propaganda. Frankly, Julian, Bjorn, Ron, Indur, Ian, Myron and I are spitting in the wind.

Yet, fifth, ironically, a further problem is complacency. The eco-pessimists are the Panglossians these days, for it is they who think the world will be fine without developing new technologies. Let’s not adopt GM food – let’s stick with pesticides.

Was there ever a more complacent doctrine than the precautionary principle: don’t try anything new until you are sure it is safe? As if the world were perfect. It is we eco-optimists, ironically, who are acutely aware of how miserable this world still is and how much better we could make it – indeed how precariously dependent we are on still inventing ever more new technologies.

I had a good example of this recently debating a climate alarmist. He insisted that the risk from increasing carbon dioxide was acute and that therefore we needed to drastically cut our emissions by 90 percent or so. In vain did I try to point out that drastically cutting emissions by 90% might do more harm to the poor and the rain forest than anything the emissions themselves might do. That we are taking chemotherapy for a cold, putting a tourniquet round our neck to stop a nosebleed.

My old employer, the Economist, is fond of a version of Pascal’s wager – namely that however small the risk of catastrophic climate change, the impact could be so huge that almost any cost is worth bearing to avert it. I have been trying to persuade them that the very same logic applies to emissions reduction.

However small is the risk that emissions reduction will lead to planetary devastation, almost any price is worth paying to prevent that, including the tiny risk that carbon emissions will destabilize the climate. Just look at Haiti to understand that getting rid of fossil fuels is a huge environmental risk.

That’s what I mean by complacency: complacently assuming that we can decarbonize the economy without severe ecological harm, complacently assuming that we can shut down world trade without starving the poor, that we can grow organic crops for seven billion people without destroying the rain forest.

Having paid homage to Julian Simon’s ideas, let me end by disagreeing with him on one thing. At least I think I am disagreeing with him, but I may be wrong.

He made the argument, which was extraordinary and repulsive to me when I first heard it as a young and orthodox eco-pessimist, that the more people in the world, the more invention. That people were brains as well as mouths, solutions as well as problems. Or as somebody once put it: why is the birth of a baby a cause for concern, while the birth of a calf is a cause for hope?

Now there is a version of this argument that – for some peculiar reason – is very popular among academics, namely that the more people there are, the greater the chance that one of them will be a genius, a scientific or technological Messiah.

Occasionally, Julian Simon sounds like he is in this camp. And if he were here today, — and by Zeus, I wish he were – I would try to persuade him that this is not the point, that what counts is not how many people there are but how well they are communicating. I would tell him about the new evidence from Paleolithic Tasmania, from Mesolithic Europe from the Neolithic Pacific, and from the internet today, that it’s trade and exchange that breeds innovation, through the meeting and mating of ideas.

That the lonely inspired genius is a myth, promulgated by Nobel prizes and the patent system. This means that stupid people are just as important as clever ones; that the collective intelligence that gives us incredible improvements in living standards depends on people’s ideas meeting and mating, more than on how many people there are. That’s why a little country like Athens or Genoa or Holland can suddenly lead the world. That’s why mobile telephony and the internet has no inventor, not even Al Gore.

Not surprisingly, academics don’t like this argument. They just can’t get their pointy heads around the idea that ordinary people drive innovation just by exchanging and specializing. I am sure Julian Simon got it, but I feel he was still flirting with the outlier theory instead.

The great human adventure has barely begun. The greenest thing we can do is innovate. The most sustainable thing we can do is change. The only limit is knowledge. Thank you Julian Simon for these insights.

2012 Julian L. Simon Memorial Award Dinner from CEI Video on Vimeo.

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The Force That Liberated Women

The innovations and opportunities of modern markets freed women more than men by STEPHEN DAVIES:

Everyone in the world today has cause to be thankful that they live in a world and a time shaped by modern capitalism. However, women have particular cause to be thankful above and beyond the gains in material well-being that they share with men.

The contrast between the great majority of human history and the world that has grown up since the mid-18th century, most notably the enormous and unprecedented increase in wealth and physical comfort that has taken place since then, even for those who count as poor today, means that everyone alive today is very fortunate compared to their ancestors.

This huge and measurable increase in well-being is mainly due to modern capitalism and its central feature, sustained innovation, along with the crucial supporting institutions that make that possible: the rule of law, free exchange and inquiry, and individual liberty.

The condition and prospects of women have changed profoundly for the better in the modern world, and this is due centrally to capitalism as an economic and social system. Ideas and thinking have also played an enormous part, but this is one of those cases where the material circumstances and relations of human beings are fundamental. Women have gained a capacity of self-direction and a range of opportunities and options that were denied to their predecessors.

We may truly say that capitalism has liberated women.

Liberated from what, exactly?

The short answer is that capitalism liberated women from material constraints arising from the reality of living in a world of little innovation, slow or nonexistent growth, and chronic material deprivation. This was also true for men of course, but for reasons both natural and social, the conditions of premodern life affected women much more severely and stringently than they did men.

Physical strength

In traditional society, hard physical labor was the lot of everyone except a very small and privileged minority; the alternative was to starve. At the same time, the threat of violence played a much larger part. Innovation of any kind was seen as dangerous at best, blasphemous at worst.

Given the natural contrasts in physical strength between men and women, this was a world with a very clear sexual division of labor. Women did all kinds of productive work, but many tasks — including many that were more highly rewarded — were monopolized by men. Even more significantly, institutions that wielded power were dominated by men because of their ultimate basis in physical force, which men could exercise more readily. Individual women might enjoy power and influence, but women in general did not.

Fertility

Most importantly, women had little control over their fertility. Unless they chose a life of chastity, they were almost certain to have children.

This huge biological fact had extensive social consequences. On the one hand, it gave women great social influence by virtue of their maternal role. This influence was outweighed by the way that their maternal role led to stringent regulation of their behavior and options. Men faced many restrictions as well, but nothing so severe.

Women had even less in the way of choices about what to do in their lives than the majority of men did. Even women from the elite had a much more constrained set of possible roles than their male counterparts. This arrangement was rationalized and supported by an ideology of female subordination, a sexual double standard, and an array of ideas about women’s ultimately inferior and limited function.

New economic opportunities

The advent and development of capitalist modernity steadily undermined the constrained and limited world of women. A range of new economic opportunities arose for them, even before the advent of machinery and the factory but massively accelerated by them. Increasingly, women could earn an independent income and support themselves, something that was practically (as well as legally) difficult in traditional society. This meant that not being married, but rather being independent, was no longer an utter disaster nor tantamount to a death sentence.

Technology

Later on, modern capitalism produced a suite of devices and innovations that physically freed women from the demands and limitations of domestic labor. To take one example, the modern washing machine freed women from the need to spend one or often two entire days of each week doing laundry. Other domestic appliances had similar effects.

The automobile gave women personal mobility and freedom of movement in a way that they had not often had before. The advent of cheap books, newspapers, and magazines created opportunities for many more women to become writers and to communicate their ideas and experiences. It also brought about a level of contact with the wider world and with other women than had ever been feasible.

Eventually, the innovation at the heart of modern capitalism brought about cheap, reliable, and effective contraception and liberated women from the constraints of a central aspect of their biology. None of this would or could have happened without modern capitalism.

The steady decline in the importance of physical strength meant that the variety of life paths open to women expanded even more than it did for men. All of these material changes were matched by intellectual ones that again would not have amounted to more than a jeu d’esprit in the absence of the material conditions created by modern capitalism.

Starting with early figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges, a succession of women attacked traditional ideas of the nature and role of women and made the case for women’s autonomy and independence.

The ladies of laissez-faire

One thing that is little known but should be pointed out is that almost all of these pioneer feminists were ardent laissez-faire liberals and supporters of capitalist industry. They were well aware of the connection between the autonomy and freedom of choice that they advocated for women and the economic transformations that had made freedom possible as a lived reality.

All women today should reflect on how the scope of their agency and self-determination has increased far more than that of their fathers, husbands, and brothers in the last 200 years.

Modern capitalism and its innovations have disproportionately benefited women and changed the material conditions of humanity. To be a woman is no longer to be in a state of natural and inevitable disadvantage in the course of life.

ABOUT STEPHEN DAVIES

Stephen Davies is a program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies and the education director at the Institute for Economics Affairs in London.