If this is the wave of the future, it makes nonsense of just about all the conventional wisdom on reducing inequality. Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society”, or whatever it is the likes of Paul Ryan etc. are selling this week, won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents. And so on.Welcome to the new Luddite approach to the improvement of the human condition. The robots will move wealth to the holders of capital from the workers.....and that is bad for us all. And what, might I ask, does he think happened in the industrial revolution? The hand loom weavers were put out of business due to automation. It was one of the heralds of the greatest changes in the history of mankind, and one from which we all now benefit. The industrial revolution was, in some respects, a painful process, but also served to create the potential for the huge benefits that we now enjoy.
I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism — which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications.
But I think we’d better start paying attention to those implications.
In the modern and developed world, the adjustment to this new source of productivity should be less painful, albeit that the transition will not be easy either. However, unlike the industrial revolution, we are not transitioning from a system that was for many people barely above subsistence. Today, we are not barely above subsistence, but that is not to say that the transition will not be hard for some people. If you have spent years learning to do something like a search for legal precedents, the automation of this process will be a hard blow. However, for all of this pain, automation will have positive benefits alongside of these costs. In the case of legal services, access to the support of the law will be more affordable to those who would otherwise struggle to have access to the services, and that may matter a lot to many people. It is no different to the access to relatively cheap cloth that will have made new clothes more affordable to poorer people; at a cost to the hand loom weavers in the short term.
Just as the spinning jenny benefited the capitalists, the providers of automated legal searches will benefit the owners of law firms who adopt the technologies that are now available.
The examples of automation creating wider economic benefits are so many that it is difficult to know where to start. The end of canals in the face of the competition from more efficient trains (which created a boom and bust that left the UK with a railway system paid in full by the loss of the capital owners), the redundancy of the typing pool with the advent of the PC and so forth. In all these cases, automation has the result of getting more from less labour, and that means more 'stuff' per unit of employed labour, even in the case of the indirect effect of removing the typing pool. As fast as labour is being removed, more output is being created per worker, meaning that more 'stuff' is available per worker. With greater output of stuff per unit of labour, labour is freed to do new things. It is, just as happened in the industrial revolution, a situation in which new jobs arise to replace the old jobs, as people find new stuff to produce, as the emerging surplus of labour is absorbed in producing 'stuff' that was previously only afforded by the few. It is the process which generates greater wealth.
One wonders, when Krugman says that there are 'uncomfortable implications' and suggest that those implications 'need attention', what exactly he might mean? Does he mean that we should halt the current process of automation, perhaps smash the robots? I mean really, what does he mean? He leaves his article vague and open, hinting at ominous consequences. However, those consequences have precedents that (for once in economics) are clear. We see the result of the precedents all around us in the developed world; more than enough food, better health, heated and comfortable homes, our many forms of entertainments, our freedom to access information, and so the list goes on.
Think of the example of the impact of the PC on the typing pool. It saw what was a hard earned skill eventually made redundant (however, I taught myself touch typing, so not entirely redundant, but I do not need the level of skill of the typing pool where there is no 'backspace'). Should we have looked at the 'uncomfortable implications' of this shift? For a typist, it was undoubtedly not a good situation. However, would we turn back the clock, and stop this change if we could? We could certainly reverse the change, by making word processing software illegal, and blocking any web services that might offer a similar facility. In a few year time, with the magic of backspace button gone, we would have huge numbers employed in typing pools. Those same individuals will be drawn from the labour force, and will be an opportunity cost; the opportunity to do something else which is genuinely in more demand.
What we are discussing here is nothing more than a variant of the broken window fallacy; that breaking a window is a good thing as it creates employment. In breaking the window as a deliberate act, it creates employment, but employment with no real point. Better that the people employed in repairing the window are engaged in productive labour with a genuine demand, rather than an artificial 'created' demand. In the same way, better people are employed in new avenues than artificially supporting, or creating, employment through the rejection of more efficient means of engaging the same labour. It is a make-work scheme where there is no need for the work. Better that the labour is employed in creating real value.
If ever there were evidence that Krugman has nothing to offer, this rather odd article is the evidence. It is no wonder that he leaves the 'implications' and solutions unsaid. If he were to say clearly what his article implies, he would be ripped to pieces. It is, as the title of this post implies, nothing more than a disingenous revival of Luddism. Krugman hides in ambiguity, but the 'implications' are clear; break the machine to save the interest of labour. He cannot see that, painful as the adjustment might be, labour is also the recipient of the benefits of automation.
Further, Krugman writes from a US perspective, and the potential benefits to the US worker are obvious; the cost of labour differential is diminished through automation. Maybe the labour will no longer be the crude repetitive labour of yesteryear, but all those 'on-shored' factories that benefit from automation will nevertheless create new employment opportunities. There may, in other words, be losers from automation, but there will be many more winners; and the win will keep on delivering, just as the industrial revolution today reverberates to the benefit of all in our day-to-day lives.