Labor and Automation

I’ve been reading up on changes in labor and automation lately, and am pretty interested to see where this is all heading in the next couple of decades. After leaving Peace Corps and having some difficult work experiences, I realized how very ignorant I am about what kinds of work people do outside of education and food service.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics is a good source for a general answer: “what are people doing right now?” “What will we be doing 5 years from now if the changes that have been happening for the past 10 years continue in a similar direction, and at a similar rate?” It is, as expected, full of lots of statistics on what kinds of things large segments of the population do. It’s not super helpful for spotting trends and attitudes, however, or asking why so many people seem to be angry and scared of those trends.

Huffington Post has, somewhat oddly, curated a collection of testimonials by lower income workers on how hard their lives are, starting with Linda Tirado, who caused a bit of a stir a few years ago with her article on “why poor people make bad decisions,” which are explicable enough when unhappy and exhausted. Ms Tirado’s impoverished persona might make a good Dostoyevsky character. “Cooking attracts roaches. Nobody realizes that. I’ve spent a lot of hours impaling roach bodies and leaving them out on toothpick pikes to discourage others from entering. It doesn’t work, but is amusing.” I imagine her sitting there in a rather dingy little apartment she doesn’t want to become too attached to, in case she’s evicted sometime, trying to study something at one am after putting her kids to bed, running on three hours of sleep, caffeine and nicotine, impairing those roaches. Why the heck not? If you’re tired and giddy enough, impairing roaches with toothpicks can seem more achievable than cleaning the kitchen.

The comments sections of these stories are filled with a predictable collection of opinions about how fast food work is most suited to teens looking for a first job and some references, not middle aged parents trying to support a family: why can’t those people get better jobs? They’re filled with angry proletariate feeling misunderstood and judged, defending their career and consumer decisions, while others continue to judge them.

Another group of articles argues “low skill” is a misnomer — cashiers, waitresses, and baristas do in fact have skills. It’s not clear who said they don’t, but people argue passionately and indignantly those people are wrong. They have skills, and those skills should be valued more highly. They aren’t valued because of corporate greed and wealthy middle aged white men, who don’t appreciate how hard their employees and servers work.  They can be interesting to read and well written, impassioned articles, but not very convincing. I don’t actually think anyone is saying people in those jobs don’t have skills — just that they have skills that can be learned by almost anyone, and are therefore not very highly valued. A great cashier will only earn their company a tiny bit more than an average cashier, and bad cashers are easy to replace.

Writers who are more interested in large scale economics provide a welcome relief from the tumult of accusations. The market is mostly just doing what it does, but faster, because of increasing automation, they explain, neutrally. If it didn’t, the problems would be even larger and more entrenched, as happens in communist countries. Those jobs at Burger King and Walmart are low wage because they can be done by almost anyone, driving wages down. There’s an enormous supply of people who can do that work, and only a moderate demand that’s falling as self-checkouts and robots replace workers. That pressure to find a different kind of work is a feature, not a bug. If people want to go to a local cafe that charges more but employs humans at decent wages, they should do that. People are being pressed out of clerical positions as well, since computers do a bunch of the work they used to have to do. It’s how free markets get people allocated to the most effective positions. But, yeah, sometimes it’s painful for the person. That’s what social services are for, but they tend to be buggy and demeaning, and need to be updated. It’s a bad idea, for instance, to structure cut-offs for services in such a way that earning a little money is economically worse than earning no money at all, and that apparently happens sometimes.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which revolves around one group of people arguing that it’s hard to live on the current minimum wage, and so more is needed. Others argue it would simply price the lowest skilled workers out of the market altogether, raising unemployment substantially. Some suppose they’ll be locked out of the most common jobs by technology in a decade or so anyway (for instance, if the transportation industry automates), but why rush things? Might as well spend that decade figuring out what to do next, rather than being unemployed on the currently rather poor set of public services (at least relative to the more robust services of Scandinavia).

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