The latest warning about robots stealing jobs comes from a well written essay by Mike Konczal:
Perhaps we want to think of robots as shapeshifting liquid-metal assassins who travel through time to kill us while we are still rebellious teenagers, or blonde bombshells in red dresses who want to seduce us to steal the military codes so they can nuke the colonies, precisely because that vision is more comforting than the reality that machines are fairly boring bits of code that will generally replace our jobs, depress our wages, and bleed our 401(k)s in ways that are largely invisible to us.
He presents two arguments. One is a chart, the second is logic.
The chart shows the rising national trend in underemployment since 1979, which Konczal interprets without question as a structural shift of some kind ... a decline in demand for unskilled labor, begging for an explanation. It would be nice if he, only in half a sentence, allowed for the possibility that a shift in policy or culture may be the cause. A sticky safety net, for example? That whole welfare failure that shattered poor families by paying money to single, not wedded, mothers?
The dramatic change in workforce participation over the last half century is not a mystery. Males down, teens down, females up. Are we really supposed to believe that females are generally skilled, males generally not? That that's the big story? Or could it be that a wealthy society experiences shifts in preferences that are fundamentally different than more rural, more religious America? For a view on the cultural explanation, do not miss the (less posty, more thoughtful) essay "What ever happened to the Work Ethic?" by Steve Malanga in City Journal. It is a masterpiece:
Weber famously argued that the Protestant Reformation—with John Calvin’s and Martin Luther’s emphasis on individual responsibility, hard work, thrift, providence, honesty, and deferred gratification at its center—shaped the spirit of capitalism and helped it succeed. Calvinism and the sects that grew out of it, especially Puritanism and John Wesley’s Methodism in England, were religions chiefly of the middle and working classes, and the virtues they promoted led to a new kind of affluence and upward mobility, based not on land (which was largely owned by the aristocracy) but on productive enterprises.
But that's all beside the point. The reason I felt compelled to blog this was Konczal's monster error in his final three paragraphs. His second argument. The nugget:
The increased presences of computers and robots in creating automation and decreasing the need for labor will increase the need for new types of labor. In particular, the labor necessary for the creation, maintenance, and deployment of said machines. But this work is highly skilled, and there is good reason to believe that it will employ fewer people post machines than before.
How can an intellegent, educated writer believe this? Think, when agriculture became automated, what happened to the 85 percent of the population that stopped farming? Konczal hints that their single option was to become tractor mechanics. Or starve. Or become wards of the state. And that's just shabby reasoning, especially when the division of labor- the most well-known, well-publicized theory in all of social science (okay, maybe a big claim on my part) - tells us what will happen. Labor liberated from its current use will evolve into new and unforeseen occupations. Blogging is the latest example, but the 20th century is littered with jobs that were unknown to the 19th. Cinematographers, professional basketballers, physical therapists. Whole cities and industries were unimagined: Detroit, Hollywood, San Jose. Is it so easy to forget what progress looks like?
I'm confident there were Mike Konczals at the dawn of the iron age warning the tribal elders that new-fangled swords would replace all the warriors. If only it were so.