Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Facing A Post-Labor Economy

It is not too early for those who scorn Socialism as an alternative to contemporary capitalism to confront a hardcore reality. How will income be distributed when the vast majority of people cannot find even the most menial of jobs?

Computers that can drive cars were never supposed to happen. Even ten years ago, many engineers said it was impossible. Navigating a crowded street isn't mindlessly routine. It needs a deft combination of spacial awareness, soft focus, and constant anticipation--skills that are quintessentially human. 

But I don't need to tell you about Google's self-driving cars, because they're one of the most over-covered stories in tech today.

And that's the most remarkable thing: In a decade, the idea of computers driving cars went from impossible to boring.

In the 19th century, new manufacturing technology replaced what was then skilled labor. Somebody writing about the future of innovation then might have said skilled labor is doomed.  In the second half of the 20th century, however, software technology took the place of median-salaried office work, which economists like David Autor have called the "hollowing out" of the middle-skilled workforce.

The first wave showed that machines are better at assembling things. The second showed that machines are better at organization things. Now data analytics and self-driving cars suggest they might be better at pattern-recognition and driving.

Robots are already creeping into diagnostics and surgeries. Schools are already experimenting with software that replaces teaching hours. The fact that some industries have been safe from automation for the last three decades doesn't guarantee that they'll be safe for the next one. A survey of recent literature identifies the following as employment that will become obsolete or greatly diminished in the next ten to thirty years*:

Lawyers and paralegals
Store clerks
Rescuer workers
Sportswriters and other reporters
Toll booth operators and cashiers
Customer service
Factory workers
Financial middle men
Phone workers
Construction workers
Hospital and medical workers
Real estate agents and related jobs
Airport security and customs officers
Airline pilots
Electrical and electronic equipment assemblers
Postal service workers
Jewelers and precious stone and metal workers
Restaurant cooks
Legal secretaries
Fashion models
Credit analysts
Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders
Packaging and filling-machine operators and tenders
Procurement clerks
Umpires and referees
Loan officers
Timing-device assemblers and adjusters
Tax preparers
Cocktail waiters

As we confront the upcoming Presidential election as well as the election of representatives at all levels of government a core issue emerges: How do we maintain not just a national but a world-wide economy when there is little connection between labor, physical or mental, and income?
*See for example:
12 Jobs You Wouldn't Think Are Threatened By Robots, But Are,
The 20 jobs that robots are most likely to take over,  
Intelligent Machines: The jobs robots will steal first,

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