2nd September 2013
Probably something along the lines of ‘How’s that Union thing working out for you?’
During the BART strike I talked to a guy named Richard White, the CEO of a tech startup in San Francisco called UserVoice. He’d been on Facebook, complaining about the traffic that had been unleashed on his staff. And he said this about the striking BART workers.
“My solution would be to pay whatever the hell they want, get them back to work, and then go figure out how to automate all their jobs.”
The whole point of Unions is to take people with low-barrier-to-entry jobs (i.e. easily replaceable by anyone with minimal literacy and numeracy) and forcibly restrict the supply of entrants (strikes, picketing, demonstrations to bring political pressure, thug violence to frighten replacement workers away) to get compensation at above market rates. When machines were huge, clumsy, and expensive, this tended to work. But machines are no longer huge, clumsy, or expensive, as the UAW drones replaced by robots on auto assembly lines have been finding out. (And, I suspect, as fast food workers will soon be finding out.)
But like it or not, ‘Claire’ will be replaced, White said. “Eventually these things are going to be automated. It’s not just BART, but lots of jobs. My point was we need to think about these things.”
And these things are things that White thinks about a lot, he told me. As he moves through his day, going to work or doing errands, he imagines, as Silicon Valley luminary Marc Andreesen once put it, “software eating the world.”
“Everywhere I walk in San Francisco, I notice there’s a job that I don’t think will be there in 15 years,” White said.
And another Democrat voter, as most such jobholders tend to be. Hence the drive to get millions of ‘undocumented workers’ into the country, so that when their jobs get automated away they’ll be thrown on government benefits and (of course) keep voting for the party of government benefits, the Democrats.
In his view, automation isn’t just an inevitable thing, it’s a good thing. We should take the routine jobs people do and “automate as much of their day as possible so they can have more time to do the more valuable things,” White said.
And that’s my day job in a nutshell; and my customers appreciate it. But the implicit assumption is that the people whose jobs are being automated are qualified to ‘do the more valuable things’, and typically they’re not. Somebody who is capable of physically counting inventory in a warehouse is rarely competent, by native intelligence much less actual training, to analyze the counts thus obtained.
Acemoglu says that as technology advances at a faster and faster pace, it has been destroying, or at least displacing, legions of jobs, especially “high-paying or middle-paying jobs for people who don’t have graduate degrees and who don’t have very specialized skills.” That is, the kind of people that make up the majority of America right now.
And that’s going to continue to happen as machines get more competent and less costly, and all the handwringing in the world isn’t going to change it. So people need to stop wringing their hands and start thinking about what’s going to happen to all of those displaced people.
In studies of what happens to workers who have lost jobs in the last few decades to automation and globalization, people usually wound up with lower paying jobs, or no jobs at all, says MIT’s Acemoglu. “It’s not been a dream come true for most people. It’s been exactly the opposite.”
And that’s a huge problem, and it’s only going to get worse.