Automation does not kill jobs
A campaign for a minimum income is misleading
Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Automation doesn’t kill jobs. People kill jobs.
OK, maybe that’s a bit simplistic, but human agency is still a thing, and there’s nothing inevitable when it comes to technology, provided of course you’re willing to pay attention.
As we’ve already discussed, the milieux of artificial intelligence is plagued by mythologies about the technology that are designed to disempower and distract. Perhaps the most significant of which, is the myth that automation will lead to a crisis of unemployment.
In 2015, economists from Ball State University suggested that around 87 percent of manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010 were due to improved productivity from automation, and just 13 percent were due to trade, claims that later appeared in the New York Times. So when Yang says that the “reason Donald Trump was elected was that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” he’s just echoing stuff that’s been printed in the paper of record.
The problem is that the Ball State team’s findings have basically been eviscerated by other researchers. In a 2018 paper, Susan Houseman of the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research showed that the rise in manufacturing productivity after the late 1990s was largely an illusion driven by how the government measures output in the computer and semiconductor industry. Within other manufacturing sectors, productivity grew slowly, which meant industrial robots probably couldn’t explain job losses.
There are other clues that the automation story is off. America hasn’t just lost manufacturing workers; as Houseman notes, the number of factories also declined by around 22 percent between 2000 and 2014, which isn’t what you’d expect if assembly workers were just being replaced by machines. In a 2017 paper, meanwhile, economists Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University concluded that the growth of industrial robots in the U.S. since 1990 could only explain between between 360,000 and 670,000 job losses.
Scratch the surface of the myth of massive unemployment and you start seeing a different scenario that offers different potential solutions:
From the abstract:
Will the internet, robotics and artificial intelligence mean a ‘jobless future’? A recent narrative, endorsed by prominent tech-billionaires, says we face mass unemployment, and we need a basic income. In contrast, this article shows why the law can achieve full employment with fair incomes, and holidays with pay. Universal human rights, including the right to ‘share in scientific advancement and its benefits’, set the proper guiding principles. Three distinct views of the causes of unemployment are that it is a ‘natural’ phenomenon, that technology may propel it, or that it is social and legal choice: to let capital owners restrict investment in jobs. Only the third view has any credible evidence to support it. Technology may create redundancies, but unemployment is an entirely social phenomenon.
What’s interesting in this paper is the historical data it uses to back up the thesis:
When a policy proposal is built upon a series of weak assumptions, either it is not meant to last, or it is a trojan horse for a larger or hidden agenda.
The brilliance of a policy like a basic or guaranteed income, is that it places attention on the growing (working) poor, and distracts us from the massive concentration of wealth and resources.
What we really need is a maximum income, or at least substantial taxes on wealth.
Thankfully this is now starting to enter the broader public policy debate via candidates like Elizabeth Warren:
We’ll definitely come back to the opportunity and need to tax wealth, but let’s close this issue on the myth of automation and unemployment by recognizing that work will never go away, it just changes.
The more important question is how is automation changing work, and what do we need to do about it. That’s where the shocking research found in the book Ghost Work helps us understand the humans making the AI puppets work:
When we argue that automation leads to unemployment we are negating the crappy work and conditions that have gone into building the world of AI that is rising around us. Automation is not magic.
Instead it would appear that the automation era has much in common with the feudal era, and this neo-feudal society uses digital serfs to prop up digital gods while the religion of technology distracts the faithful from the power and injustice that make it all possible.
I guess that makes us heretics, no longer content to be distracted, and this, a newsletter celebrating technological heresy. So spread the good word. #metaviews
With that task done, let’s listen to the words of Mary Gray, the researcher and co-author of Ghost Work: