When all the jobs belong to robots, do we still need jobs?

Zeynep Tufekci's scathing response to the establishment consensus that tech will create new jobs to replace the ones we've automated away makes a lot of good points.

It's especially good on the subject of whether we have a "shortage" of humans to care for other humans, pointing out that what people really mean when they say this is that they don't value that work highly enough to pay a sum that would attract and sustain workers who do it.

This is an oft-overlooked point in arguments about "skilled labor shortages." Market economics dictates that real labor shortages are attended by rising wages -- if workers are scarce, their value goes up -- but in skilled industries in developed countries where there is such a shortage, wages are stagnant. What business means by "there are not enough workers" is "there are not enough workers at the price we're willing to pay."

But where Tufekci's analysis falls short is in her willingness to think outside the market box. She implies that the solution to this all is some kind of market reform, but doesn't suggest that, perhaps, markets can't efficiently organize abundant things -- only scarce things. If we persist in the view that the dividends from robots' increased productivity should accrue to robot owners, we'll definitely come to a future where there aren't enough owners of robots to buy all the things that robots make.

Some economists I've spoken to tell me that they think this will lead to more redistributive policies -- like Piketty's solution in Capital in the 21st Century -- as a way of salvaging capitalism.

But as I said in my review of Piketty, there's a real scarcity of economists willing to think about the possibility that abundance makes markets obsolete altogether. Property rights may be a way of allocating resources when there aren't enough of them to go around, but when automation replaces labor altogether and there's lots of everything, do we still need it?

I don't know, but I think the unwillingness of economists and thinkers to even contemplate it tells us that we're arguing about what kind of railroad rules we should have once there are automobiles everywhere.

Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for Grandma [Zeynep Tufekci/Medium]

(via IO9)

(Image: Tesla Robot Dance, Steve Jurvetson, CC-BY)

Notable Replies

  1. IMO, this is the key concept to the article.

    For the record, I think the quoted statement is true.

  2. I am put in mind of Graeber's On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs and his recent interview at Salon.com, from which:

    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.

  3. Honestly, as far as I can tell, their policy at this point seems to be to keep rattling sabers, so that they can avoid directly implementing the "socialist" society they've scared their constituents shitless about, and do it by proxy through defense contractors. Sort of how China is hoping to re-ignite the revolution by letting the capitalists run rampant.

    And it's gotten downright bizarre just how far down the rabbit hole we've gone with the whole "everybody needs to work" mantra. In 60 years, we've gone from "a woman's place is in the kitchen" to "what, your wife doesn't work, is she lazy or what?" I even know people who, if they find out a person is self-employed, a contractor, or a freelancer, they get all butthurt about how that person is lazy because they're not doing the ol' 9-to-5. I know a guy who is in his 70s, still works darn near from sunup to sunset, and his sister-in-law hates him because he's a farmer; nevermind that he makes more money than a lot of techies by doing oilfield work on the side. Apparently he's supposed to be like some of the guys my dad worked with, who would work on the farm during the day, and work a night shift to pay the bills.

    And I totally don't get that attitude. What madness has driven us to think that everyone has to have an hourly job?

  4. When you've just landed on a continent full of trees, and you only have a few axes to chop those trees down, then it makes a lot of sense to make rules to keep those axes as busy as possible. Reward the axe's owners for using them as much and as well as they can.

    But when the forests have all been chopped down and you have a huge surplus of axes, those rules only serve to destroy the few trees you have left.

    As a guiding principal, capitalism went obsolete quite a while ago. Yet discussing what to replace it with has been taboo for an equally long time.

  5. That's pretty astounding, and it makes me wonder about some of the signage I've seen around here.

    Eh...some of us have been beating this drum for a while. Everyone always wants to look to the past on these things. Look, we've never had a history of a lack of jobs due to automation! I mean, hey, look at the Industrial Revolution! But the thing is, I'd say that's a bad example, because the agriculture jobs were being replaced with factory jobs. You could leave the farm, and build tractors instead of doing the work the tractors were doing.

    Ah, yes, job creation is being stifled solely by the government.

    Meanwhile, I live in job-hostile Illinois, and virtually all the job growth is being done with a nudge and a wink: the local mines are operating again, not because they've found a great way to use that high-sulfur coal, but because it goes to China. They re-opened on the further condition that they pay no taxes. Yes, that's right; the state's broke, the counties and townships they operate in are almost certainly broke, they put all kinds of wear and tear on the local infrastructure, but they can't be asked to help, that hurts the job creators!

    And other than mines, it's mostly service jobs coming in; retail, hotels, restaurants, and so on. And those McDonald's food assembly line people are going to be replaced by machines, and many retail spaces are just unnecessary.

    Here's hoping that the new housing market doesn't resemble the old housing market.

    I live at the south end of Illinois. In some parts of the region, median household income is $26k. And in those places, you'll see things that look like this:

    The only people who can afford them are, as far as I know, specialists, people locked in to decent payscales, and politicians (and a few retirees and techies who, for whatever reason, choose to live here). Meanwhile, much more modest homes sit unused because there's too many houses, and nobody can afford them.

    Let's let that sink in.

    Hell, right before the bubble burst, there were companies building houses like crazy. As soon as they'd get one built, they'd put a realty sign out front, and move on to the next house. You'd have thought it was somewhere in Chicagoland, or Atlanta, not the ass-end of Illinois where there's no money and no jobs (I exaggerate, but still.) Fields went from being productive food-producing areas to being subdivisions in nothing flat. My next-door-neighbor's father-in-law did just that: he'd buy up farmland, get a loan, and have a crew build a house as quick as possible.

    Many of those houses have been sold for a fraction of their original cost.

    And what are builders doing now that the housing market is "recovering"? They're back to building spec houses. Now, what the heck is a spec house? Oh, it's like I just described: they get a loan, they build a house, and put it on the market and hope like hell that somebody buys it.

    I don't think it's that there will always be a lack of jobs from automation, but that innovation in automation is currently outpacing innovation in job creation, and our society has moved away from thinking that leisure time is OK.

    If nothing else: yes, I know I'm not an economics major, but people tend to forget that the Luddites revolted because there was an immediate effect on their livelihood, whereas job replacement came later. Imagine the reaction if businesses decided that, instead of an economics or business degree, all one needed to do was demonstrate a proficiency in economics, meaning that people could compete against economics majors by studying on Khan Academy in their free time. I have a feeling econ professors would react differently to that than they do other job elimination...

    Having worked in the newspaper business, I'm cynical about the market's ability to adapt. They got handed this thing, and it was fucking golden: the Internet. No longer did they have to be constrained by their printing press and the type of paper and inks they could afford; if they could get a decent designer and decent hosting, they could move their subscriber base over to the Internet! Cheap devices were on the horizon! Instead, they treated it like it was a valueless commodity, something to throw their print content onto and ignore. Now, well, I linked to this a while back:


    I used to work for that place. Look at that website. Just look at it.

    And the kicker is, that company (the last I knew) was paying a pretty penny for designers and developers to make that, and it's a company-wide thing. I'm sorry if any Gatehouse people read BoingBoing people read this, but...that thing's terrible. Not only that, but it's terrible for the local newspapers. So much of that content isn't local. So much of the advertising you see there isn't local, either. It's just...well, it's a mess.

    Years ago, that newspaper, under the guidance of a different company, got rid of most of its staff at a time when their print circulation was much higher, thinking that they'd be able to make up the difference with canned content and productivity gains. Nope. But they keep trying. I guess if I'm getting anywhere with this, it's this: this notion that gains will make life better and that new jobs will magically come into being because The Market Will Adapt reek of Magical Fairy Dust thinking.

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