Automation Reworked

Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles: Corporate,  some rights reserved

Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles: Corporate, some rights reserved

Although jobs have been a common campaign issue in recent history, the anger and resentment that accompanied it in the 2016 election revealed the depth of the public’s fear, and its doubt about whether this is a problem our government will be able to solve. But when it comes to identifying the source of the problem, or how to fix it, many economists think people are misguided: it is not globalization but automation that is to blame. Yet there must be blame, because eliminating jobs is bad, right? Right?

Lost Jobs and Who’s To Blame

The Trump victory clearly showed the direction of many people’s resentment and their answer of who is to blame. The suspects are globalization, free trade, and immigrants, and they have all been found guilty. As we might expect, given the perpetrators, this has precipitated a rise in nationalism, xenophobia, and cultural sadism. While these are condemnable in their own right, we should also explore if the “culprits” really are to blame.

One study by researchers at MIT did find that globalization, and specifically trade with China, likely caused the rapid loss of between 2 million and 2.4 million jobs between 1999 and 2011. That is substantial, but amounts to less than half of the manufacturing jobs lost in the same timeframe. Although charges against NAFTA are debatable, its effect on U.S. employment largely seems to be negligible based on a review of the impact of NAFTA over its first two decades. The effects of immigration have some caveats, but a study by the National Academy of Sciences last year found that immigration has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S.; although first-generation immigrants are more costly to governments than native-born, the “the second generation are among the strongest fiscal and economic contributors in the U.S.”

But if these culprits don’t fully explain it, then who is to blame for job losses? Increasingly, experts say automation. One often cited study from Ball State found that about 13 percent of manufacturing jobs were lost to trade, while the rest were due to increases in productivity primarily driven by automation. This is an interesting point that bears some further attention. The key fact is that productivity is now at odds with employment, and recent history already shows us which of these seems likely to win out. Many analysts now claim that manufacturing jobs are not coming back, due to the simple fact that manufacturing has been coming back to the U.S., but the jobs haven’t. Since 2009, manufacturing output has increased over 25 percent, but in that time manufacturing employment is up less than 5 percent.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics via FRED

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics via FRED

In the longer term, America has lost more than 7 million factory jobs since 1979, but American factory production has more than doubled in that time period. Put another way: in 1990, the average American autoworker made 13 cars per year; in 2010 the average autoworker made 18 cars per year. In short, you can now make more cars with fewer workers.

And yet for a number of reasons it is much easier to blame people than to blame technology. For one, technological advance is seen as a sign of progress — it represents both wealth and the means by which we produce more wealth. Clearly, it leads to more productivity, which is proclaimed as the antidote to our economic woes. We cannot stand in opposition to production, so we must look elsewhere to find the guilty parties.

Moreover, technology is associated with scientific progress — each new technical innovation provides further proof that we are coming to better understand the physical world. We value the devices in our pockets, and the increasingly complex products that make our lives easier.

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

There may be another more hidden reason why we do not correctly place blame on technology as the cause of our economic anxiety. A Pew Research Center report found that while 65 percent of Americans believed that robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans within 50 years, 80 percent also believed that their own jobs will exist in their current forms in 50 years, including 82 percent of workers whose work mostly consists of manual labor. On the other hand, one in five express concern that they might lose their job due to their employer finding another human worker to perform their job for less money. These polls convey a kind of cognitive dissonance, the kind that says “it could happen to anyone, but it couldn’t happen to me.”

Automation is “Killing Jobs”

Automation is getting increased attention, and the Pew polls do suggest that public awareness is growing. In doing so, the media tends to use language that speaks to people’s anxieties, saying that automation is “the biggest threat” to jobs, or that it is responsible for “killing jobs.” Jobs become laden with values, themselves worthy of moral consideration. That is, in part, because jobs are inextricably intertwined with the people who occupy them; killing a job is tantamount to killing a person’s livelihood. Nevermind what the job was, if it was something that person actually enjoyed, or if it meaningfully contributed to the betterment of society — it was a source of income, and a means to eat, access shelter, and live the bare minimum of a dignified life.

And so corporate executives are often portrayed as cold-hearted or even actively malicious. Ed Rensi, the former CEO of McDonald’s USA, speaking on the Fox Business Network remarked that “If you look at the robotic devices that are coming into the restaurant industry, it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient (and) making $15 an hour bagging french fries.” This was used as an argument against raising the minimum wage, much to the indignation of many people, especially liberals. Yet, placing blame on corporations is also misguided, much as it would be inappropriate to blame workers in China for jobs lost due to trade. Corporate executives are as much beholden to the economic system as their employees. If they do not continue to choose cost efficient practices, they will lose out to their competitors. The same coercive force that displaces humans when they are less productive than robots also displaces businesses when they are less efficient than their competitors.

While executives are lampooned as economic villains, predictions of technological advance are often met with a kind of resignation. People seem to tacitly accept that automation is only one more inevitable step forward in a world order that only contingently benefits humans. Instead, there is an underlying feeling that it serves some other shadowy, and perhaps sinister purpose, though what that is and how it came to be this way is unknown. Regardless of whether we want automation or not, it’s coming. But without any alternatives, we are stuck trying to make the best of it. We are trapped in a train that plunges forward with terrifying speed, but the doors are locked, and we are unable to do anything to stop it.

Getting Back To Work

There is another perspective, one that is easily within reach, that does not condemn the elimination of jobs, but rather sees that condemnation as itself a symptom of a much larger problem. Take another example of corporate automation. Ronald De Feo is the CEO of Kennametal, a Pittsburgh-based industrial materials company, and is currently implementing an overhaul of their factories. This includes investing between $200 million and $300 million in the factories, and cutting 1,000 of 12,000 jobs. Visiting one factory, he saw workers packing items by hand, and quickly ordered $10 million in machinery to automate that process. Speaking with a reporter at the AP, De Feo says this will result in “better quality at lower cost” and ultimately “what we want to do is automate and let attrition [reduce the workforce].”


As we think about that example, and that of the McDonald’s french fry-bagger, before we bemoan the loss of those jobs we should first ask if we think those jobs allow for work befitting the full dignity and potential of a human being. Why should we desire that a person be obligated to scoop fries all day, or pack items by hand? This is a vestige of the Industrial Revolution, when humans were assembled to work like machines, a degrading and fundamentally dehumanizing arrangement. We should be able to rejoice at this liberation. And yet, we are only faced with the dread that there is no place for humans to make a living.

The benefits of automation are rarely, if ever, framed in this way. Instead, the advantages are typically couched in the language of business and efficiency. This was the position expressed by Andrew Puzder, President Trump’s initial selection for Labor Secretary, when he praised the virtues of robots over their human counterparts in an interview with Business Insider. “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case,” he said. This kind of rationalization further alienates people, as the benefits of automation are posed in direct contrast to human traits.

Most often, attention is turned towards mitigating the inevitable consequences of technological disruption. The conservative response is typically a deeper kowtow to the demands of big business, while liberals usually focus more on re-skilling and workforce training. (Really, this is not so much a difference of opinion, but a rather slight difference of emphasis). This requires a certain kind of desperate optimism, one that dearly hopes that, while technology will automate away some jobs, it will also create many more, as it always has in the past. This was reflected in the outgoing Obama administration’s report on Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy. The overriding concern is not on the reduction of jobs, but their changing skill requirements, and our ability to skill up a workforce that previously was able to get by on less than a college degree.

The alternate perspective offers a chance to fundamentally reframe this issue. It declares that we should celebrate the elimination of jobs that belittle people, those that are too small, too tedious, too boring to fulfill the deeply transformative potential that work can have on people. Clearly, we cannot celebrate this right now, since job elimination does in fact mean hardship for the people it affects. So while we cannot genuinely hold this perspective right now, it points to fundamental flaws with our current economic system. The fact that we lament the loss of jobs as french fry-baggers should indicate that something is wrong with our default perspective.

Work can provide purpose and pull us to life in ways that no other activity can. Automation should be liberating, not freeing us up for leisure, but to do work that we really, really want to do. In the other, resigned perspective on automation, the elimination of jobs means an elimination of work. Nothing could be farther from the truth: work is infinite and all around us. The end of work could only come when we have achieved a utopian society, an idea that is preposterous in its own right. Until then, there is so much to do to improve society and the structures that govern it, to better the lives of people everywhere, in their material condition and their opportunity to achieve their potential. This perspective inspires us to achieve a kind of reversal, so that we no longer serve work, but that work serves the person who performs it. Work does not have to be tolerated like a mild cold (“it’ll be over in a few days”), but can be the primary activity that empowers us, that promotes growth and pulls us to be more human, to achieve more of who we are as individuals and what we are collectively. What we need is not a reskilling but a rebirth into a more humane society, one that cherishes humanity and facilitates our ascent.

The Industrial Revolution began a course where we treated humans like machines. Now we are developing the technology for machines to take their rightful place. It is time to find our rightful place as humans, not in the absence of work, but in full pursuit of it.