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Bringing Back Jobs and Giving Them to Robots

By       Message Craig K. Comstock     Permalink
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Whatever problems the administration may have in bringing back good jobs for some of its supporters, we all have a challenge rearranging society to deal with automation. To what extent have jobs already gone not only to low-wage workers in foreign countries but also to robots? And is the administration attempting to bring back jobs only to see some of them being given to machines?

Magical thinking makes for a good political rally based on "alternative facts," but reality strikes back. Some angry people are about to learn, painfully, some basic economics.

Rather than paying wages higher than abroad, won't firms speed up the process of automation whenever it's cheaper than paying domestic workers? Meanwhile, isn't the administration's promise to bring back good jobs an incentive to corporations to trade plans to offshore production for financial incentives from the public purse (delivered, for example, by tax relief, subsidies, contracts)?

Unlike human workers, as the incoming secretary of labor has pointed out, machines don't take days off, require medical care, expect pensions, file suits for discrimination for sexual assault, or need to sleep.

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Consider the political situation faced by the new administration. Big pats of it own party, which controls Congress, has sought for decades to reduce government control over industry. How long will it stand for Federal manipulation of the economy?

Apart from automation, somebody would have to pay for the higher compensation package, so firms would have to increase prices. This would reduce their exports, and also sales at home. In other words, domestic consumers would pay for the higher compensation packages.

Given sloppiness of understanding, will a distinction be observed between (a) stopping some firms from exporting eve more jobs, and (b) inducing them to hire more domestic workers with higher compensation packages? Who will pay for any actions to manipulate the economy? domestic consumers? taxpayers?

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Does the administration here, as in healthcare, expect benefits to be free? Why? Will it try to sell the line that private firms are always more efficient than "government"? What is the evidence? It's hard not to think of the notoriously ignorant Tea Party sign, "government keep your hands off my Medicare."

Keeping the focus on employment, the administration appears to be trapped. To the extent that they succeed in manipulating the "free market," as noted above they would violate a basic GOP principle. To the extent they provide more good jobs, who pays, once people realize that benefits can't be conjured up by magic? Once U.S. officials start imposing tariffs, what happens when other countries strike back?

The automation discussion is old, going back at least to the 1960s. For example, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions issued a report on "the triple revolution" in 1964. Like many visions of the future, it was ahead of its time, but that should make is praise the foresight, not chuckle complacently at the half century during which we have largely neglected the issue while seeking cheap labor abroad.

Looking ahead, the report called for a guaranteed basic income detached from employment as a replacement for "welfare" and as a way of spreading some of the wealth to be generated by automation. If the economy increasingly fails to provide jobs for humans, but everyone needs the basics of life, what is the solution? A patchwork of so-called "safety net" arrangements?

Usually a factory does not convert wholly from human labor to machines. The loss of jobs for people happens step by step, starting with the jobs easiest to automate. The process may unfold slowly. Also, it's a mistake to think in terms of existing factories. What about entirely new facilities, such as Amazon warehouses?

The effort to bring back good jobs will fail, even to the extent it's not paid for by taxes on the rest of us or tax breaks for firms. Ultimately we face, if not a jobless future, then one with fewer jobs. We should be having a discussion not about restoring economic arrangements that are lost forever, but about how to support people displaced by machines. If this was debated during the recent Presidential campaign, I missed it, along with serious discussion of climate change and nuclear danger.

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We are often reassured that the system is working. But the system isn't working. Then major issues of our time are either denied or misunderstood or underestimated or left for later, whether it's nuclear danger or climate change or the welfare of citizens (such as via basic income). For example, how is a good society arranged in which robots do an increasing share of the work?

 

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Author of three recent books, Better Ways to Live: Honoring Social Inventors, Exploring New Challenges (2017); Enlarging Our Comfort Zones: A Life of Unexpected Destinations (2016); and Gift of Darkness:Growing Up[ in Occupied Amsterdam (more...)
 

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