Reprinted from Campaign For America's Future
Automation will undoubtedly transform the workforce, the economy, and society as a whole. Robotics, sophisticated "AI" software, and other technologies will cause lasting and profound changes in the future. But that's no reason to ignore the problems we're facing right now.
In fact, the best way to ensure that we have a more equitable economy tomorrow is by fighting for one today.
Two recent commentaries addressed the "robot question." One, by Don Lee, ran in the Los Angeles Times under the headline "Reality check: Manufacturers returning to U.S. may mean jobs for robots, not people."
Lee cites two companies that are using highly automated new technologies to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. from China. Because of that technology, far fewer jobs were created by their return than had been lost when they first moved their manufacturing overseas.
Lee summarizes one such story by saying that "what (it) actually shows is not how easy it would be to bring back manufacturing jobs, but how small the results can be, thanks largely to the very thing that made the return possible: automation."
But these companies seem to have brought their manufacturing back to the U.S. because of automation, which is not equally advanced in all areas. They do not seem representative of industry overall.
Automation is likely to become a major job-killer. But these two anecdotes aren't the "reality check" that Lee suggests. Robots aren't taking over, at least not yet. That can be seen in the data. As economist Dean Baker has pointed out, the rate of productivity growth has slowed in recent years. That's the opposite of what we would expect to see if automation was already transforming the workplace.
We shouldn't use tomorrow's threats to avoid solving today's problems.
Brave New Rant
David Ignatius takes a deeper look in a column headlined "The brave new world of robots and lost jobs," writing:
"The political debate needs to engage the taboo topic of guaranteeing economic security to families -- through a universal basic income, or a greatly expanded earned-income tax credit, or a 1930s-style plan for public-works employment."
That's exactly right. But Ignatius is also overly dismissive of today's workforce challenges when he argues that "economic security won't come from renegotiating trade deals" or "rebuilding infrastructure."
"These are palliatives," says Ignatius. "Ranting about bad trade deals won't begin to address the problem."