Friday, June 24, 2011

Jobs, Structural Unemployment, and Technology

So pretty much since the invention of technology (which was, you know, pretty early on) people have been freaking out about how technology is going to take up all the jobs and leave a bunch of people permanently unemployed. This is where we got the luddites. But, as many of you may have noticed, the fact that we don't employ nearly as many farmers or textile artisans as we used to hasn't caused massive unemployment (though the recent recession certainly has).  Generally, this is because we start wanting (and getting) new things when making old things becomes so easy we don't need a bunch of people to do it.  Roughly speaking, we see this as a growth in GDP per capita, an increase in wages, and higher standards of living.  Great news for everyone, right?

Anyway, I always enjoy seeing articles like this one.  For those of you too lazy to click, the mises blog notes that computer science has done wonders at making large numbers of lawyers redundant.  I love this, but I think it kind of points to an unfortunate possibility.  In the long run (and I mean the really long run; this isn't something that I worry about for the next 25-50 years), I think the vast majority of current human endeavors will be done by robots and computers.  We're getting good at this stuff.  We're killing jobs that require advanced degrees, and there are much lower lower bounds on paying for computers and robots than there are on paying for people.  Now, some professions are going to be more or less immune to this trend.  Academic research is going to require people for the foreseeable future, likewise computer programming, and pretty much anything that takes significant social interaction - say PR, but also prostitution (I hope... a world of robo-prostitutes is probably morally preferable, but really creepy), sales, live entertainment, &c.

Now, the concern of many is that these technological gains are going to cause structural unemployment.  That is, people will be unemployed in a systematic way.  Maybe all jobs with IQ requirements below 120 will be able to be done cheaper by a computer or robot, which means in turn that we would expect more than half our population to be permanently unemployed... not good.  If you look at the first two jobs I list as computer proof (research, programming) you can see why people might worry about this, but the linked article and the rest of the list (PR, sales, live entertainment, and other forms of prostitution) show that this isn't necessarily the case.  Technology makes the work of smart people easier too, and if work is easier you either hire fewer people (and get the same amount done) or get more done.  Unless we see a strong systematic trend in the situation that can't be overcome with education &c then we don't really have to worry terribly much about long term structural unemployment.

Another, perhaps less commonly voiced concern is that the increased technological productivity is going to dramatically change the economic landscape.  Most people will be employed doing "frivolous" (computer unfriendly) things, or else professionally learning or telling computers what to do (most likely a combination of the two).  Artists, musicians, and writers are already a much larger part of our economy than at any point in history, especially in the highest echelon of wealth, and I would fully expect this trend to continue and extend into the lower income brackets.  I'm not sure what this sort of civilization would look like or whether it would be a good thing.  Something to think about.


  1. I largely agree with your perspective, though I'm not sure that it will be borne out in the long term. Perhaps it is a moot concern, as it may only occur at a time when little work would be required to live, but I feel that on a long enough time scale structural unemployment is a virtual certainty for almost all forms of work. So far, laborers supplanted by technology have been able to find alternate employment; I'm not convinced, however, that this trend can continue indefinitely -- not so long as technological progress pushes ever further ahead.

    Sure, at this moment, and for the considerable future, humans are more brains of industry while machines are more brawn: intellectual endeavors still demand human faculties, while repetitive tasks are more efficiently relegated to machines. But I expect that this dichotomy will be eroded in time, with increasingly more work becoming mechanized. Some professions may be more or less resiliant to this shift, but even the most intellectually demanding work will not be immune. What happens when the typical machine is a better scientist, programmer, or even artist, than the most gifted of humans? Or what precludes machines from attaining such ability?

    If futurists are right (Ray Kurzweil perhaps foremost among them), then at some point machine intelligence -- as measured however we see fit -- will match and eventually exceed that of traditional humans. (And I actually believe that this may come to pass within your and my lifetime, given that we've gone from Deep Blue to Watson in scarcely a decade; Kurzweil is even making monetary bets on when a machine will pass the Turing test.) This would result in a bit of a quagmire, for if technology makes the work of smart people easier, and if the typical machine is more intellectually capable than the typical human, then it would seem sensible to use machines instead of humans to perform the intellectual work. If we consider that machines also tend to be more productive at menial tasks, then, with enough of them, it seems likely that they could supplant the human workforce altogether. (A search on this topic led me to this blog post, which raises the same concern and addresses this perspective in depth.)

    Where, then, do people fit into a future where machines are more effective at performing virtually any form of work? Repose on a beach served piña coladas by our robotic benefactors? Perhaps. Starved pariahs on a mechanized Earth? Possibly. Employed? In this scenario, not likely. I actually think that the only form of employment where humans will always be needed is, interestingly enough, competitive sports. As far as I have discerned, it seems to be the only form of "work" that is, by its very nature, peculiar to humans.

    Of course, should this all come to pass during my lifetime, I for one plan to remain employed. I'm confident that my technofriendly perspective will have earned me the benevolence of our mechanized counterparts, and they'll spare me an opening. Time of course will tell.

  2. Economic Progress Should Be Measured In Job Destruction.

    To the free of mind, this counter-intuitive assertion is mere common sense. The real issue isn't being addressed here. We can guess all day at the particulars of what technology has in store for us. The real issue is that those who wield technology's power decide whether to use it for good or evil. And job creation is evil. It is only our current enslavement that keeps us begging to be 'employed'. Look at the issue with fresh eyes, the way a child might, and you'll get it too.

    The call for job creation is a perverse subjugation of the human race. It does not take a historian to know that Obra et macht was a lie. "Creating work" flies in the face of everything society has been striving for. If you simply want more jobs, then why not raise taxes and hire brick layers at public expense. Then you can hire brick unlayers to make more work as needed. Clearly the issue isn't jobs, it's universal economic prosperity. It's a strong and certain future for the middle class. "Job creation" is the perfect political tool, and people eat it up. In the 21st century, work is the opiate of the masses. For everyone at the top, giving voters jobs fills the idol hands. It fills the pockets of the rich, and it subtly established an enshrined and hierarchy. Further, in 'tough economic times, it seems like charity. Teaching a man to fish is the greater good, is it not?

    Reid Johnson Wrote about the coming day when work isn't needed to survive. Let me tell you that that day has come and gone. And the reason that we are all still hard at work is simply subjugation. Man used to need, but today he only wants. Capitalism came to an interesting crossroads around the last turn of the century. From 1890-1900 was the first time it became apparent that it was possible people had everything they wanted. There was even talk of shutting down the patent office. You can think to yourself, "what a ridiculous idea!" but just try to imagine the mindset of someone who could fathom having 'enough' of something. Its a far cry from today's ideals. What has changed is that capitalism invented marketing. 'Push' marketing to be exact. And from that point on we created a world in which it wasn't enough to have cheap, quality goods- we want hand made, custom products, and personal customer service. The 'good' news is that there will be plenty of jobs to go around. People will never be subject to the horrible tragedy of species-wide retirement. No, instead the current economic system has made provisions to keep us working all the way to the end.

    The real tragedy isn't the factory worker who is to be replaced by the machine he helped build. It is the fact that he helped build it and is not allowed to share in the fruits of his own labor. The workers who built this nation put their blood and sweat into its greatness, but only the richest 1% can profit from it. This is why that 1% perpetually get richer every year at a rate that outpaces the rest of the world. That is why "jobs" (economic prosperity) are disappearing. The current form of anarcho-capitalism we have is no longer sustainable.

    It is the unknown that people fear. And that fear has us technologically paralyzed. Frozen in the road like a deer in the headlights. Our unemployed don't need jobs, they need economic reforms. They need to share in the joy of the technology that they helped build

    What I'm calling for is the representation of American ideals in the workforce. I want to see policy that represents the will of the people doing the work. I want to see the democratization of our jobs. Technology isn't the enemy; its not taking your job. It's doing the work for you. It's the wealthiest 1% who are making it work against you.