A guy came into my house yesterday and worked on my gas meter. From now on there will be no need for a meter reader to walk house to house, pushing buttons on his little beeping device that records the gas usage. A van will drive down the street and a computer will send a radio signal to the meter, allowing remote reading. Say goodby to a lot of jobs.
Those jobs were not so great. Walking all day in summer heat and winter cold is no fun. The jobs were outsourced long ago by the gas companies, so the wages were low. But at least they were real jobs (that’s a sad line that might be the most common employment wisdom for the foreseeable future).
Anytime I mention this loss of jobs caused by automation, someone jumps up with a comment like “think about all the jobs that were created designing and building those gas meters!” Yes, a few jobs were created. It didn’t take a lot of engineering to create a radio gas meter. The factory where they were built had a few workers, but I’m sure the automation in that factory was high enough to use no more than a fraction of a man-hour per unit. The net result was way over in the “lost jobs” side of the equation.
There is another dumb zombie arguments that is still shambling around the issue of jobs. The proponent notes that the US used to be a agrarian nation, then as mechanical farm production took away jobs, workers switched to factory work. As factory work becomes more automated, jobs switched to service sector. Now that even service sector work is being automated, the argument is made that some new sector of work will provide jobs. There is no “new” sector of jobs. Primary (agriculture, fishing, and extraction such as mining), the secondary sector (approximately the same as manufacturing), the tertiary sector of the economy (service sector or the service industry) are the three parts of the private economy.
That’s all there is. No amount of wishful thinking will produce a new sector.
I’m a science fiction reader, so the concept of automation and robots taking away most of the jobs is something I have read about extensively. There are a few stories where this transition is managed so that society is able to deal with the loss of jobs and ends up improved. The Star Trek series is the most popular, they have no unemployment, in fact they have no money, they use other means to distribute scarce resources. Lots of other stories foresee a huge impoverished lower class, ruled by an elite who spend time amusing themselves with ephemeral games while doing their best to stop thinking about the class beneath them. Marshall Brain’s story Robotic Nation is required reading for the details of how we lose jobs.
The present job losses are not all cyclical, caused by the Great Recession. There are many structural losses, jobs which will never return. I don’t hear a lot of politicians acknowledging this fact. Republicans have a philosophy that requires them to ignore lost jobs, and given the quality of the candidates they are running for president, ignoring reality seems to be a party platform. I hear a few Democrats talk about structural job loss, but they get scared when the shouts of “socialist!’ are thrown at them.
This week President Obama kicked off his campaign with a new theme. It echoed a historic address given by former President Theodore Roosevelt in the same Kansas town more than 100 years ago. Roosevelt infuriated his fellow republicans with the speech that railed against the great trusts that controlled the economy. I have a suspicion that Obama might freak out some of his fellow Democrats with this new line on the economy. I selected a segment of the speech that directly mentions automation and structural job loss.
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