Sunday, August 25, 2013

"HOW Technology Wrecks the Middle Class"

Two weeks ago we posted "What Blue Collar Workers Will Have to Do to Defeat the Robots" with a paper by a couple of Boston Profs and left it at that.
The next day FT Alphaville's Cardiff Garcia used the Murnane/Levy paper as the jumping off point for "The history of the robot future’s future history" a multi-source, multifaceted post that highlighted some of the questions engendered by the rise of the machines, wage differentials (I'm going to stop using inequality because every time I type the word I see George Orwell's Animal Farm and Benjamin reading the new prime-commandment to Clover: All animals are equal but some are more equal than others and I get sad), ownership,* allocation of profits/fruits of labor, labor's possible responses, the dawn of agriculture, the futility of prognostication and nihilism, you know, the usual stuff.

Here's some more, this time from the New York Times' Opinionator blog's The Great Divide series on inequality (hmmm...):
In the four years since the Great Recession officially ended, the productivity of American workers — those lucky enough to have jobs — has risen smartly. But the United States still has two million fewer jobs than before the downturn, the unemployment rate is stuck at levels not seen since the early 1990s and the proportion of adults who are working is four percentage points off its peak in 2000.

This job drought has spurred pundits to wonder whether a profound employment sickness has overtaken us. And from there, it’s only a short leap to ask whether that illness isn’t productivity itself. Have we mechanized and computerized ourselves into obsolescence?

Are we in danger of losing the “race against the machine,” as the M.I.T. scholars Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in a recent book? Are we becoming enslaved to our “robot overlords,” as the journalist Kevin Drum warned in Mother Jones? Do “smart machines” threaten us with “long-term misery,” as the economists Jeffrey D. Sachs and Laurence J. Kotlikoff prophesied earlier this year? Have we reached “the end of labor,” as Noah Smith laments in The Atlantic?

Of course, anxiety, and even hysteria, about the adverse effects of technological change on employment have a venerable history. In the early 19th century a group of English textile artisans calling themselves the Luddites staged a machine-trashing rebellion. Their brashness earned them a place (rarely positive) in the lexicon, but they had legitimate reasons for concern.

Economists have historically rejected what we call the “lump of labor” fallacy: the supposition that an increase in labor productivity inevitably reduces employment because there is only a finite amount of work to do. While intuitively appealing, this idea is demonstrably false. In 1900, for example, 41 percent of the United States work force was in agriculture. By 2000, that share had fallen to 2 percent, after the Green Revolution transformed crop yields. But the employment-to-population ratio rose over the 20th century as women moved from home to market, and the unemployment rate fluctuated cyclically, with no long-term increase....MORE
It wraps up with a projection of one of our new fave words, Artisans, and what looks to be a bunch of freelancers
...The outlook for workers who haven’t finished college is uncertain, but not devoid of hope. There will be job opportunities in middle-skill jobs, but not in the traditional blue-collar production and white-collar office jobs of the past. Rather, we expect to see growing employment among the ranks of the “new artisans”: licensed practical nurses and medical assistants; teachers, tutors and learning guides at all educational levels; kitchen designers, construction supervisors and skilled tradespeople of every variety; expert repair and support technicians; and the many people who offer personal training and assistance, like physical therapists, personal trainers, coaches and guides. These workers will adeptly combine technical skills with interpersonal interaction, flexibility and adaptability to offer services that are uniquely human.
HT: Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider

*"In Animal Farm, though Napoleon and the pigs may not 'own' the means to production in the technical sense of possessing a legal piece of paper that says they do … the pigs behave as if they own the farm and have a canine police force to back up their claim."

-Peter Edgerly Firchow, in Modern Utopian Fictions from H.G. Wells to Iris Murdoch (2007), p. 106

"Barbers, Bakers and Bankers: Whose Job Is Future-Proof?"
A Job the Robots Won't Take: Become a Financial Charlatan
Robot Lobbyists Say Robots Good, Create Jobs--UPDATE
Automation Steals Jobs: Röböts Playing Motörhead

And many more.