When I opened my email a few days ago, the first thing that popped up was an article from the Brookings Institution titled “The Robots Are Ready as the Covid-19 Recession spreads,” predicting that a coronavirus-related downturn will increase the rate at which American industry invests in labor-replacing automation.
As I have previously argued, jobs don’t matter simply because most of us need to put food on the table. Having a job–even a job we dislike–gives most of us a sense of purpose and identity. (There is a reason so many people die shortly after retiring.)In “The Truly Disadvantaged,” William Julius Wilson noted the significant differences between neighborhoods where residents are poor but employed and neighborhoods where residents are poor and jobless.
The longterm trend was worrisome well before the advent of the Coronavirus: American economic mobility and job creation had already begun to slow, largely as a result of policies favoring larger firms over the entrepreneurial start-ups that were once responsible for the creation of most new jobs. Numerous studies have documented what Brookings calls “a steady and significant increase in consolidation” Thanks to anemic anti-trust enforcement, the number of so-called “mega-mergers” has increased, and as the market power of these huge companies grows, competition decreases. The under-enforcement of anti-trust laws has reduced entrepreneurship, increased predatory pricing practices and economic inequality, and resulted in the concentration of economic growth.
Rather than the vigorous competition that characterizes healthy markets, we have increasingly moved from capitalism to corporatism, or crony capitalism, in which government shields favored industries and companies from competitive pressures rather than acting as the guarantor of a level playing field.
Until recently, people expressing concerns about job losses have focused their criticisms on the outsourcing of manufacturing to low-wage countries, ignoring what is by far the biggest contributor to job loss– automation, and the replacement of workers by machines.
A 2018 study by Ball State University found that just since 2000, nine out of ten manufacturing workers have been replaced by automation. That same year, the Pew Research Center asked approximately 1900 experts to opine on the impact of emerging technologies on employment; half of those questioned predicted the displacement of significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers by robots and digital agents, and predicted that those displacements will lead to serious consequences: larger increases in income inequality, masses of people who are unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.
Forecasts varied widely. One analysis, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, predicted that ten percent of the jobs in advanced economies will be automated, while scholars at Oxford University warned that 50% of American jobs are at risk. Obviously, no one can say with confidence how many jobs will be lost, or which workers will sustain those losses, but technologies now in development threaten millions.
Think about the numbers. There are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States, and another 1.7 million Americans drive taxis, Ubers, buses and delivery vans for a living. Self-driving cars, which are already being road-tested, could put them all in the ranks of the unemployed.
Think skilled workers are immune? Think again. Reports show accelerating automation of jobs held by skilled knowledge workers engaged in data-driven decision-making. Between 2011 and 2017, Goldman Sachs replaced 600 desk traders with 200 coding engineers. Even medical professionals are at risk: in 2017, Entilic, a medical start-up, reported that its AI algorithm “outperformed four radiologists in detecting and classifying lung modules as either benign or malignant.” In 2016, the World Economic Forum projected a total loss of 7.1 million jobs to automation, including jobs in advertising, public relations, broadcasting, law, financial services and health care.
Automation will obviously create jobs as well as destroy them, but that will be cold comfort to that 55-year-old truck driver with a high-school education–he isn’t going to move into a new position in Informatics.
What does the current pandemic have to do with this longterm trend? According to Brookings:
Robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline. At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.
America wasn’t prepared for a pandemic, and we won’t be prepared for the civic unrest exacerbated by widespread joblessness. We are going to require skilled leadership, and that leadership will not be provided by the Party of the Past, led by a mentally-ill ignoramus.