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October 21st, 2019

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Sunset Red and Gold-- The Gondolier

DESCRIBED FUTURES

Automation fears and realities

Of the many justifications for introducing a universal basic income, automation is among the most popular. Over the past years, a slew of reports and endless media coverage has raised the specter of mass "technological unemployment"—a possible future that has been taken up by basic income proponents across the political spectrum. It was even a point of argument in this week's Democratic presidential debate.

In the first of a two-part series, historian AARON BENANAV (whose work on the history of unemployment categories we shared in a previous letter) critiques and situates the automation debates within long-term global trends. Framed as a response to what Benanav terms the "automation theorists," who maintain a sense of inevitability about the robot takeover, the paper pursues alternate explanations: declining labor demand, global deindustrialization, and manufacturing overcapacity.

From the paper:

“Automation turns out to be a constant feature of the history of capitalism. By contrast, the discourse around automation, which extrapolates from instances of technological change to a broader social theory, is not constant; it periodically recurs in modern history.

The return of automation discourse is a symptom of our era, as it was in times past: it arises when the global economy’s failure to create enough jobs causes people to question its fundamental viability. The breakdown of this market mechanism today is more extreme than at any time in the past. This is because a greater share of the world’s population than ever before depends on selling its labour or the simple products of its labour to survive, in the context of weakening global economic growth.”

Link to the paper, and link to an ungated version on the author's website.

  • David Autor's 2016 paper "Paradox of Abundance" examines the problem of its title: "technological changes threatens social welfare not because it intensifies scarcity but because it augments abundance." Link.
  • A previous newsletter highlights a paper by legal scholar Brishen Rogers, which critiques automation fears in the US context by pointing to labor law and the "fissuring" of the workforce as more consequential for stagnating wages and declining job security. Link. Along the same lines, but in the European context, Zachary Parolin's recent work for the OECD measures the effects of collective bargaining agreements on wages in automatable occupations. Link.
  • Three post-debate accounts of the issue: Paul Krugman in the Times; Matt Yglesias in Vox; and Jordan Weisman in Slate, featuring the following quote from David Autor: "If we talk about the economic trauma of the 2000s, that’s not primarily due to automation. Nobody can tell you what great invention happened in 1999 that wiped out 20 percent of manufacturing jobs."
  • For another broad view of macro trends and low-demand problems, see JW Mason's "Macroeconomic Lessons from the Past Decade." Link.
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