Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Progress of Labor?

Why haven't the robots freed us from the drudgery of labor?

As I noted in another posting:

"Right.  I will have to address that last issue in another blog posting.  How did we get snookered into believing that it was "progress" for a typical family was to have two working spouses, working 50-60 hours a week each (as opposed to the 40 hours our Fathers worked) to have the equivalent standard of living of 40 years ago?  Under the rubric of gender equality, I think we were snookered into working twice as hard, just to have a mound of crap parked on our lawns and electrical gadgets in our homes.  But that is a subject for another posting."
OK, here is that posting.

Automation has eliminated a ton of jobs.  Computers are eliminating even more.   Robotics promises to take even more work away from us.   And at one time, we thought this would be a good thing, right?   After all, we'd all live like Masters, while our robot slaves mowed the lawn for us, did the dishes, and build us all the consumer goods we'd want.

That was the theory, anyway.

Today, however, instead of robots doing all our chores, they are merely taking away our jobs and leaving us penniless.  Or at least that is the narrative that some folks set forth.

So, instead of working 20 hours a week and letting automation take up the slack, families are working even harder.   The stay-at-home housewife is not obsolete yet, but many families are forced to become "dual income" families, not by choice, but necessity.   Many of the working poor are working at two or three jobs, with no benefits, sometimes 60 hours a week, just to get by, as their unskilled labor is not valued at all.

Automation was supposed to make us all wealthier and happier - and make us work less.   And to some extent, this has come true - for some of us.   Consumer goods, as I have noted time and time again in this blog, are cheaper than ever before, in terms of inflation-adjusted prices.   And this is not all just due to things being made in China for cheap.    Cars today are more elaborate than ever, yet in terms of inflation-adjusted prices, lower in price - and they are still made in America, by half the number of people required a decade ago.

For those of us in the techno-classes, who have some technology skills to engage this new world, life isn't too bad.   We are in demand for pretty well-paying jobs, and can engage this technology to our advantage.   We have surplus income (if we are smart and don't spend it all) to invest in these robot factories and reap the rewards.  For those in the money-management class, life is even better, as owning an automated factory (or controlling it, financially) is a pretty sweet deal.

But for Joe Laborer, life is harder than before, in some regards.   Steady employment is difficult, as demand for no-skill jobs is low, and more and more no-skill jobs are automated every day.   Wages have to compete with machines.  Raw labor isn't worth as much as it used to be, so he makes less money.   And since he can't afford to invest in a robot factory, he can't reap the rewards of automation, other than through lower-priced consumer goods, which he still might not be able to afford.

The only upside for Joe Laborer is that with what little money he makes (and government assistance) he can buy more junk - and nicer junk - than his forebears.   Yea, maybe his Dad made good money sabotaging Chevies in a UAW factory.   But Dad would never dream of owning a 50" flat-panel television, right?  (This is the argument made facetiously, by Kurt Vonnegut in his book, Player Piano - Napoleon never owned a snowmobile).

The question remains, is this a natural consequence of our increasingly technological society, and nothing can be done about it?  Or is it a matter of public policy, and we can legislate our way around it?   France tried to institute a 35 hour workweek, as a matter of law, to compensate for the effects of automation.   It would seem to make sense - fewer hours for workers, as fewer hours were required.

Problem was, since France was the only country to do this, it placed them at a competitive disadvantage, and after a few years of recession, they scrapped the idea.

In a way, it is like labor laws (or pollution laws) anywhere.   The country that adopts them is always at a disadvantage to the country that exploits labor and pollutes.  For example, China.  One reason Trump withdrew from the Paris Accords wasn't that he didn't believe in climate change, but thought the deal was unfair to the United States (the press seems stuck, like a broken record, on the former explanation).

And while it is true that we emit a lot of carbon (because we have the world's largest economy - only China emits more) what some conservatives didn't like about the deal was that it punished the US more than other countries, and gave "developing" countries a free pass.   Whether you agree with this logic or not isn't the point - the point is, the country that exploits it workforce and exploits the environment is, sadly, at an economic advantage over the county that doesn't.

So France's 35-hour workweek experiment was doomed to failure, as those hardworking German neighbors (and their Turkish foreign workers) are clocking in a full 40 hours.

But maybe, like Boyle's law, these forces will even out over time.   Already, we are seeing that the cost of labor in China is rising and their competitive advantage over the US is starting to evaporate.  Wages in the US have stagnated, making the US a competitive place to do business, for Americans, Europeans, and even the Chinese.

But still, I wonder how this will play out.  And maybe robotics is one explanation for the rise in income inequality.   And where this leads us is an interesting question.   What happens when we have an entire factory run by robotics?   A factory built by robots?   The person who controls that factory, through ownership or other economic power, would have almost infinite wealth.   Robots building robots, with the only human intervention being directing them what to build and where to deposit the checks.

We could go two ways with this, in the future.  Robotics could be the revolution to raise all of us out of poverty, and create a utopia of low-cost products, clean city streets, and citizens who work at creative pursuits, for only hours a day, if they chose.   Or it could divide the world into those who have and those who have not.

And in a way, maybe this future is already here.   There are increasingly a larger and larger number of people making craft things and performing services, as opposed to working in factories with machines.   There are few jobs in the automated brewery that pumps out lite beer by the tanker-full.  But America's appetite for micro-brew pubs seems hardly to be whetted.   Manufactured goods are cheap and durable, but people still treasure hand-crafted artisan products, made one at a time by real people.  A neighbor in New York makes handmade shoes in a small factory - their biggest market is in Japan, where "hand-made" craft items from America are in high demand.   In an economy of perfect machine-made things, hand-made has a cachet.

It will be interesting to see where this all goes.   Dystopian future, or a utopia for us all?  And how will we know when we get there?