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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.

New York Orders Fast-Food Workers Replaced With Robots, Kiosks, Mobile Apps by Daniel Bier

Well, they didn’t quite put it that way — the New York Times‘ headline read “New York panel recommends $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers” — but it amounts to the same thing.

A panel appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recommended on Wednesday that the minimum wage be raised for employees of fast ­food chain restaurants throughout the state to $15 an hour over the next few years. Wages would be raised faster in New York City than in the rest of the state to account for the higher cost of living there.

The panel’s recommendations, which are expected to be put into effect by an order of the state’s acting commissioner of labor, represent a major triumph for the advocates who have rallied burger­ flippers and fry cooks to demand pay that covers their basic needs.

They argued that taxpayers were subsidizing the workforces of some multinational corporations, like McDonald’s, that were not paying enough to keep their workers from relying on food stamps and other welfare benefits.

The $15 wage would represent a raise of more than 70 percent for workers earning the state’s current minimum wage of $8.75 an hour. Advocates for low­ wage workers said they believed the mandate would quickly spur raises for employees in other industries across the state, and a jubilant Mr. Cuomo predicted that other states would follow his lead.

In other news, I ordered my lunch yesterday on my computer and picked it up from Panera Bread without ever talking to a person. Last night, I picked up a couple groceries and paid through the self-checkout lane. This morning, I ordered a latte on my Starbucks app, and it was waiting for me when I walked into the store. I’m thinking of going to a burger joint later, where I’ll tap out my order on a kiosk.

Of course, it’s not fair to blame the minimum wage exclusively for the increasingly widespread automation of service jobs. Ordering kiosks and mobile apps are becoming more popular as the technology becomes better, cheaper, and more popular. That will probably happen no matter what the price of labor is.

But the fact that the cost of not using technology — that is, an employee — is about to cost 70% more will give the entire New York fast-food industry a great big shove away from labor and towards machines. And since chain restaurants don’t just operate in New York, the investment in automation will spill into stores everywhere.

Who wins from this?

Unions and more experienced workers, at least in the short-run. Labor unions’ entire purpose is to push up wages for their members, which makes them more expensive and less attractive compared to non-union workers.

But if unions — like, say, the Service Employees International Union — can make all workers more expensive, it makes union labor look relatively better by comparison. They won’t have to compete against cheaper labor anymore (which is to say, less-skilled workers won’t be allowed to compete by underbidding them).

Why arbitrarily single out “fast food” for the hike?

First, it makes the fight politically easier because the unions only have to defeat one industry lobby, instead of every business that uses unskilled labor. Second, the SEIU, in particular, represents a lot of food workers and has for years been pushing to unionize the big fast-food chains.

Who loses?

First, businesses, especially those operating on thin margins. They’ll be staring at a 70% increase in labor costs, already typically one of the biggest expenses for restaurants.

Less experienced workers — especially unskilled immigrants and young people starting out in the job market — will also lose. Businesses will try to offset some of higher cost of labor by cutting hours or jobs, delaying or cancelling expansions, replacing labor with capital where they can, and replacing less skilled with more skilled workers where they can’t.

They’ll also try to raise prices to cover costs, so consumers lose, too — especially those who eat fast-food more often, have tighter budgets, and have food as a bigger share of their budgets: i.e., low and lower-middle income families.

The net effect this will be less employment, less production, and less consumption. The economy and especially less-advantaged people will be worse off for it.

Miscellaneous arguments:

  • CEO pay: The Times awkwardly shoehorns in the fact that McDonald’s chief executive made $7.5 million last year, presumably trying to suggest that he’s the reason its other 420,000 employees are paid so little. In case you’re wondering, redistributing his salary comes out to 5 cents per employee per day. And then McDonald’s has no CEO. Hurray?
  • Corporate Subsidy: The Times also uncritically repeats the incoherent claim that taxpayers are somehow “subsidizing” these “multinational corporations” because they don’t pay “enough to keep their workers from relying on food stamps and other welfare benefits.” This makes no sense at all.
  • No Big Deal: The economists who claim that raising the minimum wage won’t hurt employment that much always couch it with the caveat that the increase be “small” or “moderate.” By no stretch of the imagination is hiking the wage floor to $15 “moderate.” In New York, it’s a 70% increase; in states with the federal minimum of $7.25, it’s 107% increase.

Antony Davies has charted the relationship between the minimum wage as a share of the average wage and the unemployment rates for different workers over time.

There’s no connection between the minimum wage and unemployment for the college-educated, but for those with high school or less, there’s a strong positive correlation:

Notice that the chart axis stops at 45% of the average hourly wage: in more than three decades, the minimum wage has never gone higher. Today, according to BLS data, a $15 minimum wage would be 60% of the average hourly wage — the highest relative minimum wage ever. We are literally going into uncharted territory.

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the editor of Anything Peaceful. He writes on issues relating to science, civil liberties, and economic freedom.

Will Your Child become a Robot’s Pet? Apple’s Co-founder Thinks So…

I have written about how technology can be used for both good and evil. Technology has become ubiquitous, it is everywhere. Our children and grandchildren are becoming more addicted to technology, as they do so the evil side may rear its ugly head.

The Guardian reports:

Apple’s early-adopting, outspoken co-founder Steve Wozniak thinks humans will be fine if robots take over the world because we’ll just become their pets.

After previously stating that a robotic future powered by artificial intelligence (AI) would be “scary and very bad for people” and that robots would “get rid of the slow humans”, Wozniak has staged a U-turn and says he now thinks robots taking over would be good for the human race.

“They’re going to be smarter than us and if they’re smarter than us then they’ll realise they need us,” Wozniak said at the Freescale technology forum in Austin. “We want to be the family pet and be taken care of all the time.”

Artificial intelligence was the theme of the movie Ex Machina. The prime character is another tech billionaire who believes, like Wozniak, that he can create the perfect AI robot. This dream results in his death and the death of others. As I wrote in my column “Ex Machina: Consciousness without a Conscience“:

This film is disturbing because is shows how humans without a conscience (morality) can, when given the chance, pass along their lack of morality to a machine.

[ … ]

Humans must control their urges to use technology to become God, as Caleb points out to Nathan. Robots must never be allowed to act alone. Think of the film The Terminator. You see machines may have a goal but lack a soul.

If the goal of AI machines is to have us as pets then perhaps we need to rethink having AI machines?

In “Cyber Security: Where are we now and where are we headed?” I warned:

The more we tune in, turn on and hook in to technology the greater the threat to individual privacy and freedom.

[ … ]

What are the future threats?

bio chip embedded in hands

Sub-dermal chip implants.

Restorative and enhancement technologies, biohackers, cyborgs, grinders and sub-dermal technology (chipping). Restorative technologies include devices used to help individuals medically. They are devices, that include a computer chip, used to restore the lives of individuals to normal or near normal. Restorative technologies include devices such as: heart pace makers, insulin pumps and prosthetic devices.

Enhancement devices are those which the individual implants into their bodies outside of the medically approved arena. Individuals can for just $39 buy a glass-encased embeddable chip that works with some Android smartphones.  A full DIY cyborg kit, including a sterilized injector and gauze pads, runs about $100. Amal Graafstra, a cyborg who creates and sells biohacking devices, said, “Some people see the body as a spiritual vessel not to be tampered with.  And some people understand their body is their own, treating it like a sport utility vehicle. I see [biohacking] as, I got fancy new fog lights on my SUV. “

Some of these enhancement devices are being designed to be used with computer games. The idea is to give the gamer a more realistic experience by using sub-dermal technology to provide pleasure and pain as the game is played. Mr. Jorgensen states that the gaming industry is “spending $300 million annually” to provide sub-dermal gaming chips, effectively turning gamers into cyborgs.

Will your grandchild become a cyborg’s pet or become a cyborg? It is immoral to have a human become the “pet” of a robot.

Pet is another name for slave.

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CLICHÉS OF PROGRESSIVISM #45 – “Robots and Computerization Cause Unemployment” by WENDY MCELROY

Report Suggests Nearly Half of U.S. Jobs Are Vulnerable to Computerization,” screams a headline. The cry of “robots are coming to take our jobs!” is ringing across North America. But the concern reveals nothing so much as a fear—and misunderstanding—of the free market.

In the short term, robotics will cause some job dislocation; in the long term, labor patterns will simply shift. The use of robotics to increase productivity while decreasing costs works basically the same way as past technological advances, like the production line, have worked. Those advances improved the quality of life of billions of people and created new forms of employment that were unimaginable at the time.

Given that reality, the cry that should be heard is, “Beware of monopolies controlling technology through restrictive patents or other government-granted privilege.”

Actually, they are here already. Technological advance is an inherent aspect of a free market in which innovators seeks to produce more value at a lower cost. Entrepreneurs want a market edge. Computerization, industrial control systems, and robotics have become an integral part of that quest. Many manual jobs, such as factory-line assembly, have been phased out and replaced by others, such jobs related to technology, the Internet, and games. For a number of reasons, however, robots are poised to become villains of unemployment. Two reasons come to mind:

1.Robots are now highly developed and less expensive. Such traits make them an increasingly popular option. The Banque de Luxembourg News offered a snapshot:

The currently-estimated average unit cost of around $50,000 should certainly decrease further with the arrival of “low-cost” robots on the market. This is particularly the case for “Baxter,” the humanoid robot with evolving artificial intelligence from the U.S. company Rethink Robotics, or “Universal 5” from the Danish company Universal Robots, priced at just $22,000 and $34,000 respectively.

Better, faster, and cheaper are the bases of increased productivity.

2.Robots will be interacting more directly with the general public. The fast-food industry is a good example. People may be accustomed to ATMs, but a robotic kiosk that asks, “Do you want fries with that?” will occasion widespread public comment, albeit temporarily.

Comment from displaced fast-food restaurant workers may not be so transient. NBC News recently described a strike by workers in an estimated 150 cities. The workers’ main demand was a $15 minimum wage, but they also called for better working conditions. The protesters, ironically, are speeding up their own unemployment by making themselves expensive and difficult to manage.

Compared to humans, robots are cheaper to employ—partly for natural reasons and partly because of government intervention.

Among the natural costs are training, safety needs, overtime, and personnel problems such as hiring, firing and on-the-job theft. Now, according to Singularity Hub, robots can also be more productive in certain roles. They “can make a burger in 10 seconds (360/hr). Fast yes, but also superior quality. Because the restaurant is free to spend its savings on better ingredients, it can make gourmet burgers at fast food prices.”

Government-imposed costs include minimum-wage laws and mandated benefits, as well as discrimination, liability, and other employment lawsuits. The employment advisory Workforce explained, “Defending a case through discovery and a ruling on a motion for summary judgment can cost an employer between $75,000 and $125,000. If an employer loses summary judgment—which, much more often than not, is the case—the employer can expect to spend a total of $175,000 to $250,000 to take a case to a jury verdict at trial.”

At some point, human labor will make sense only to restaurants that wish to preserve the “personal touch” or to fill a niche.

The tech site Motherboard aptly commented, “The coming age of robot workers chiefly reflects a tension that’s been around since the first common lands were enclosed by landowners who declared them private property: that between labour and the owners of capital. The future of labour in the robot age has everything to do with capitalism.”

Ironically, Motherboard points to one critic of capitalism who defended technological advances in production: none other than Karl Marx. He called machines “fixed capital.” The defense occurs in a segment called “The Fragment on Machines” in the unfinished but published manuscript Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy).

Marx believed the “variable capital” (workers) dislocated by machines would be freed from the exploitation of their “surplus labor,” the difference between their wages and the selling price of a product, which the capitalist pockets as profit. Machines would benefit “emancipated labour” because capitalists would “employ people upon something not directly and immediately productive, e.g. in the erection of machinery.” The relationship change would revolutionize society and hasten the end of capitalism itself.

Never mind that the idea of “surplus labor” is intellectually bankrupt, technology ended up strengthening capitalism. But Marx was right about one thing: Many workers have been emancipated from soul-deadening, repetitive labor. Many who feared technology did so because they viewed society as static. The free market is the opposite. It is a dynamic, quick-response ecosystem of value. Internet pioneer Vint Cerf argues, “Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case.”

Forbes pointed out that U.S. unemployment rates have changed little over the past 120 years (1890 to 2014) despite massive advances in workplace technology:

There have been three major spikes in unemployment, all caused by financiers, not by engineers: the railroad and bank failures of the Panic of 1893, the bank failures of the Great Depression, and finally the Great Recession of our era, also stemming from bank failures. And each time, once the bankers and policymakers got their houses in order, businesses, engineers, and entrepreneurs restored growth and employment.

The drive to make society static is a powerful obstacle to that restored employment. How does society become static? A key word in the answer is “monopoly.” But we should not equivocate on two forms of monopoly.

A monopoly established by aggressive innovation and excellence will dominate only as long as it produces better or less expensive goods than others can. Monopolies created by crony capitalism are entrenched expressions of privilege that serve elite interests. Crony capitalism is the economic arrangement by which business success depends upon having a close relationship with government, including legal privileges.

Restrictive patents are a basic building block of crony capitalism because they grant a business the “right” to exclude competition. Many libertarians deny the legitimacy of any patents. The nineteenth century classical liberal Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk rejected patents on classically Austrian grounds. He called them “legally compulsive relationships of patronage which are based on a vendor’s exclusive right of sale”: in short, a government-granted privilege that violated every man’s right to compete freely. Modern critics of patents include the Austrian economist Murray Rothbard and intellectual property attorney Stephan Kinsella.

Pharmaceuticals and technology are particularly patent-hungry. The extent of the hunger can be gauged by how much money companies spend to protect their intellectual property rights. In 2011, Apple and Google reportedly spent more on patent lawsuits and purchases than on research and development. A New York Times article addressed the costs imposed on tech companies by “patent trolls”—people who do not produce or supply services based on patents they own but use them only to collect licensing fees and legal settlements. “Litigation costs in the United States related to patent assertion entities [trolls],” the article claimed, “totaled nearly $30 billion in 2011, more than four times the costs in 2005.” These costs and associated ones, like patent infringement insurance, harm a society’s productivity by creating stasis and preventing competition.

Dean Baker, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic Policy Research, described the difference between robots produced on the marketplace and robots produced by monopoly. Private producers “won’t directly get rich” because “robots will presumably be relatively cheap to make. After all, we can have robots make them. If the owners of robots get really rich it will be because the government has given them patent monopolies so that they can collect lots of money from anyone who wants to buy or build a robot.”  The monopoly “tax” will be passed on to impoverish both consumers and employees.

Ultimately, we should return again to the wisdom of Joseph Schumpeter, who reminds us that technological progress, while it can change the patterns of production, tends to free up resources for new uses, making life better over the long term. In other words, the displacement of workers by robots is just creative destruction in action. Just as the car starter replaced the buggy whip, the robot might replace the burger-flipper. Perhaps the burger-flipper will migrate to a new profession, such as caring for an elderly person or cleaning homes for busy professionals. But there are always new ways to create value.

An increased use of robots will cause labor dislocation, which will be painful for many workers in the near term. But if market forces are allowed to function, the dislocation will be temporary. And if history is a guide, the replacement jobs will require skills that better express what it means to be human: communication, problem-solving, creation, and caregiving.

Summary

  • The use of robotics to increase productivity while decreasing costs works basically the same way as past technological advances, like the production line, have worked. Those advances improved the quality of life of billions of people and created new forms of employment that were unimaginable at the time.
  • Compared to humans, robots are cheaper to employ—partly for natural reasons and partly because of government intervention. Natural costs include training, safety needs, overtime, and personnel problems such as hiring, firing and on-the-job theft. Unnatural, non-market costs stem from cronyism dispensed by governments.
  • An increased use of robots will cause labor dislocation, which will be painful for many workers in the near term. But if market forces are allowed to function, the dislocation will be temporary.

For further information, see:

“Technology and the Work Force: Work Will Not End” by Donald Jonas

“Good Economists, Bad Economists, and Walmart” by Lawrence W. Reed

“The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830” by Raymond J. Keating

If you wish to republish this article, please write editor@fee.org.

ABOUT WENDY MCELROY

Contributing editor Wendy McElroy (wendy@wendymcelroy.com) is an author, editor of ifeminists.com, and Research Fellow at The Independent Institute (independent.org).

EDITORS NOTE: 

The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is proud to partner with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) to produce “Clichés of Progressivism,” a series of insightful commentaries covering topics of free enterprise, income inequality, and limited government. See the index of the published chapters here.