Scitech | Machines in the labour market

Automation, welfare, and the demise of the human worker

Since the industrialization of manufacturing, humans have worked in increasingly specialized roles, producing more and more value per worker. Through the wars, the recessions, the bull runs, and the energy crises of our capitalist economies, jobs have been lost, created, and lost again. The rise of labour activism and collective bargaining raised living standards, and motivated factory bosses to consider workers’ welfare as well as sheer profits. In the mid-20th century, a strong manufacturing base provided Western workers with high employment, cheap consumer goods, and even a decent wage in a union-protected job.

In 2013, a couple of developments in the long history of manufacturing have changed this picture irrevocably. The real wage of the average American worker has stagnated for more than thirty years, while elites have clocked incredible economic gains. Much of North America’s manufacturing has long since moved to Asia – witness the demise of the local textile industry, once the lifeblood of Montreal neighbourhoods and small towns in Quebec’s southwest, now remembered only through abandoned red-brick factories scattered around Mile End. The union job and the middle class are in decline, a constant theme in the liberal press since the Great Recession five years ago. The Occupy movement came and went, failing to enact meaningful political change, but succeeding in imprinting the idea of the 99 per cent on the North American psyche.

Last year, a flurry of articles cautiously heralded a ‘return’ of manufacturing jobs from China to the United States. Most news outlets were prescient enough to note that the flow of jobs from China to the United States, if it can even be characterized as such, was a slow trickle at best. Then, in February, American television show 60 Minutes published a segment on “the jobless recovery.” According to an emerging body of economic research, jobs are returning to the United States, not to be worked by humans, but by robots.

60 Minutes interviewed two MIT professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of a recent book, Race Against the Machine, in which they argue that ongoing automation in the American economy threatens wider income inequality and higher unemployment. Human organizations must catch up to technological change, or face obsolescence in the labour market, as increasingly complex and efficient networks of robots and computers protect corporations’ bottom line. McAfee and Brynjolfsson believe that by encouraging entrepreneurship and embarking on an audacious update of the educational system, we can help keep humans relevant in our processes of production.

Unfortunately, the effects of automation grow at the same pace as developments in its technology: that is, exponentially. Will entrepreneurship training and an overhaul of education really enable humans to keep pace with the progress of technology twenty, thirty, or forty years in the future? Race Against the Machine suffers from the same assumption proposed by Marxism, capitalism, and even good old Christianity: that it is necessary and good for humans to work.

Consider a world, decades in the future, where automation has replaced nearly all of the simple, mechanical jobs that are still tenuously held in America. Electricity is generated from a variety of renewable resources, from hydroelectric dams to advanced nuclear fission and solar panels. People move about using driverless mass transit and automatic cars. Factories and warehouses produce goods without human involvement, aside from perhaps a few engineers who monitor the production. Hydroponic farms, with automatic irrigation systems, grow food under optimal conditions until robotic harvesters collect the ripe produce. Dairy cattle are raised in much the same way they are today: in “factory farms,” by the thousand, their udders connected to suction devices.

Whether this vision strikes you as a paradise or a dystopia, the technology already exists, and is being implemented increasingly in the world today. Driverless transit systems are already in use in Vancouver, Tokyo, Singapore, and other modern cities. Google is testing a driverless, self-directing car. Existing sources of renewable energy, though slow to catch on, must eventually be implemented, as oil wells run lower and carbon emissions become a more pressing problem. Hydroponic agriculture is predisposed to automated processes; even outdoor farms are gaining higher yields through the use of GPS-coordinating robotic harvesters.

All of this bodes ill for the average worker. True, the “knowledge economy” won’t soon be replaced by robotic researchers, writers, or hi-tech entrepreneurs. But for the rest – skilled factory workers, drivers, agricultural labourers, clerks, and so on – the future looks bleak, if current political and economic conditions continue.

The only way to plan for such a massive shift in the economy is to reconsider our notions of employment, welfare, and the moral value of work. In a future where machines produce most of the value – in food, energy, transportation, and consumer goods – but where our current economic structures persist, not everyone will find a remunerative job. Full employment, a concept promoted in conventional economics as the sign of a healthy economy, will no longer be possible. The only morally acceptable alternative, then, is a wide-scale form of welfare. Already in America, there is need for a much better system of redistribution, as evidenced by the fact that most of the U.S.’s economic growth over the past thirty years has lined the pockets of the rich and well-educated. Unless we are content with a fundamentally inequitable social order, one that will inevitably be worsened by the progress of automation, a guaranteed minimum income is a future necessity.

Of course, the idea that a large portion of the population would be kept in house and home by the state is anathema to the traditional conception of capitalism. But as our economy continues to experience the radical changes wrought by super-efficient technological systems, we must reexamine what we consider to be an acceptable social order. Fundamentally, our notion of the “right to work,” at least insofar as it applies to creating value in a capitalist economy, should be replaced by more fundamental values: the right to be healthy, the right to spend time with one’s family, the right to experience art, and the right to leisure.


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