Income Disparity in the Face of Labor Displacement by Technology
What Happens When/If There Aren’t Any Jobs Left for People?
In his essay, “Manna”, Marshall Brain presents two very different scenarios for society in a “post jobs” era. Both scenarios share one important theme: The “post jobs” era doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to develop. That time can be used to continue down the “jobs = resources” path that defines the lion’s share of today’s economy. Or it can be used to define a new path that allocates resources to the world’s citizens even when they do not need to work.
In his essay, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved”, Don Peck describes a jobs trend that is already happening in the U.S. He argues that many of the relatively low skill U.S. jobs that have disappeared since the current recession began are not going to come back as the economy improves. They have been replaced in some cases by foreign labor and in others by increased productivity that technology has brought. He sees this as a trend that has been happening for years. It was simply masked in the run up to 2008 by the construction boom that created a whole raft of new jobs.
In his book, The Lights in the Tunnel, Martin Ford argues that technology will replace human workers at an accelerating pace. Then he points out that one company’s worker is another’s consumer. So, without workers, there will be no consumers and the mass market that is the basis for our modern economy will collapse. He then goes on to propose interventions that could save the economy.
In their book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that new technology is fast replacing workers who perform repetitive tasks (be they factory workers or radiologists). Technology is also creating a “winner take all” world in which the winners garner great wealth, while the incomes of everyone else suffer.
This slightly longer essay, Coming to an Office Near You, in The Economist, elaborates a bit and summarizes most of the key issues, including the potential for large scale social disruption if nothing is done about the jobs that will disappear as a result of new technology.
Read at least the first and the last two of these. The others are excellent, so read as much of them as you have time for. After you’ve done the reading, answer these five questions:
1. A common response to the observation that low skill jobs are disappearing is, “More education – let’s send more kids to college”. Do you think that we can solve the problem in this way? You may want to talk about relatively short term solutions, as well as solutions that would have to play out over the longer term as described by Marshall Brain. Explain your reasoning.
2. Briefly describe a “post jobs” economy that you would like to see develop. You may describe something like Terrafoam or something like the Australia Project or a taxation based solution of the sort suggested by Martin Ford or something completely different.
3. What would we have to start doing in the near future in order to make the economy you describe in question 2 happen?
4. If we stick our heads in the sand and do nothing about this issue for the next few decades, what do you think is likely to happen? In particular, do you think that Peck is right? Why?
5. Do you think, in say the next couple of decades, that any of the more radical solutions proposed by any of these authors are likely to be politically acceptable in the US?
You should be able sketch answers to all these questions in 2 or 3 pages. Number your sections 1 - 5, corresponding to the five questions above. Each section should have a clear thesis statement.