Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Thoughts on “Rise of the Robots”

In what feels like a previous life, I used to read a lot of midcentury social theory.  Some very smart people -- I’m thinking here of folks like David Riesman -- used to argue that the great crisis of the coming decades would be the sudden abundance of leisure.  Given the outsize productivity gains of the previous decades, and the declines in the average workweek, it seemed reasonable to look forward and suggest that the future held ever-shorter workweeks.  In that scenario, what to do with so much “found time” seemed like a burning issue.  (Riesman titled one of his books Abundance for What?, which gives a pretty accurate idea of what he took as given.)  No less an economic thinker than Keynes believed that workweeks would get steadily shorter, freeing people up to pursue more interesting things.  

Somewhere along the way, that didn’t happen.  

Productivity is much higher now than it was then, though living standards for middle-class Americans peaked somewhere around 1970.  We’ve become astoundingly good at coming up with ways to consume leisure time.  My kids have trouble believing that there were once only four channels on tv, and the idea that we didn’t have the internet strikes them as horrifying.   I’m old enough to remember when seeing a movie meant hoping that it came to the local theater, or that it would be “movie of the week” on one of the four channels.  Now, I have to explain to the kids why they shouldn’t stream Netflix over 4G.  The “abundance of leisure” problem has been solved.

But the “how to make a living” problem is real.  Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford, makes a strong case that technology-driven job elimination is outpacing technology-driven job creation, and it isn’t confined to blue-collar jobs anymore.  As robotics and artificial intelligence have advanced with increasing speed, they’ve been able to displace humans in progressively higher-skilled occupations.  Over time, human labor is split: a small elite either owns or designs the machines, and makes an absolute killing.  A majority is shunted into work that’s both idiosyncratic -- and therefore hard to automate -- and low-value, making it not worth automating. (Much low-end service sector work fits this description.)  And the rest are pushed outside of formal employment altogether.  

In the world predicted at midcentury, this wouldn’t have been a problem.  Many critics at that time assumed that increased wealth would be spread evenly across society; they assumed a de facto decoupling of ownership from profits.  Instead, we’ve doubled down on the tight connection between ownership and profits.  In many fields, we’ve increasingly decoupled work from meaningful income.

Ford notes that healthcare and education have been relatively immune to the rise of the robots so far, with a few exceptions.  (He claims that pharmacists have taken it on the chin; I don’t know whether he’s right about that.)  By the logic of Baumol’s cost disease -- which he briefly outlines but never names -- we should expect cost increases in healthcare and education to continue to outstrip most other sectors, simply because their productivity is increasing much more slowly than everyone else’s.  As that happens, we should expect the pincer movement of higher prices and internal austerity to tighten.  (Ford may be more right than he knows; for example, he places far greater faith in robo-graders for papers than I do.  If I’m right, then the productivity nut is even harder to crack than he thinks it is.)

What Ford gets right, and the midcentury critics got wrong, is that a strong middle class is neither inevitable nor natural.  It’s a relatively recent, and fragile, development, and it was the result of a set of conscious political choices.  As those choices are reversed, the conditions under which a middle class can thrive go away, and the middle class struggles to reproduce itself.  The savvier members engage in “opportunity hoarding,” or pulling up the drawbridge behind them; the less savvy ones gradually (or quickly) lose ground, and wonder just what the hell happened.  

From the perspective of someone working in the community college world, Ford’s diagnosis is bracing.  Community colleges are designed to create a middle class for a society that’s increasingly moving away from a middle class economy.  The task is getting objectively harder.  Jobs that once seemed like sure bets for long-term economic security come under attack, one after the other.  Yes, some still exist, and I’m happy to prepare students for them.  But if you compare, say, the number of people who work at Amazon to the number of people who used to work at Borders, you can see the problem.  

Perversely, I actually draw some hope from the staggering wrongness of Riesman’s and Keynes’ predictions.  They were very smart people who wrote books that captured important truths about their times, but they got the future badly wrong.  As smart as they were, they couldn’t capture the entire picture, and the cracks in their systems let in so much water that the whole thing sunk.  If we’re lucky, fifty years from now, someone will say the same about Martin Ford.