There Is No Alternative To Embracing Automation
Francis Menton, Manhattan Contrarian
Salena Zito, whose work I often admire, has a long piece in the New York Post from Sunday headlined "This is the next Democratic stronghold to crack like the Rust Belt." It seems that Ms. Zito has done the same thing that I have done many times, namely taken the Acela train between Washington and New York. If you do that, it's hard not to notice the very large stretches of devastated, abandoned and burned-out America -- some in Newark, some in Trenton, a huge part of North Philadelphia, some of Wilmington, the majority of Baltimore. Zito:
Outside, a different Acela corridor rolls by — one roiled by isolation, decay and societal changes, a world ghosted by technology, corrupt politicians and bad city planning. Shuttered machine shops, refineries, steel mills and manufacturing plants near Trenton and Philadelphia slide past the window like a kaleidoscope of sorrow; scores of once-charming century-old houses are now covered in graffiti and dot areas in and around Baltimore, Newark and Wilmington, Del.
There are also some upscale places along the route, although somehow the train's view doesn't offer much of a flavor of the nice suburbs of New York and Washington. But as to the large and highly visible decayed areas in these cities: could they now be ready to try another political approach, rather than whatever it is that has brought them so low?
Ms. Zito then moves on from description to diagnosis and prescription. Unfortunately, I think that she then gets it all (or nearly all) wrong. Her diagnosis of the problem, in a word, is "automation":
[M]ostly, it has been unrelenting automation that has eliminated middle-class jobs and lives. . . . [One study] determined [that] every additional robot used in automation reduced employment in a given commuting area by three to six workers, and lowered wages by 0.25 to 0.5 percent. There are 1.5 million robots out there working in what is left of industrial America, and that number is projected to double in less than 10 years.
And how about a prescription of what to do?
The hard truth is that no one has any idea what to do with the under-employed, high school-educated people who once were able to carve out good, middle-class lives with their own hands, as long as they were willing to work. But somebody had better figure it out soon. . . .
Sorry, but no. First: sure robots destroy jobs. They are just the latest gizmos to fill that role. Earlier versions of such gizmos were industrial looms and mechanized tractors and reapers for farms. Those things, between and among them, "destroyed" what were then the jobs of some 90+% of Americans. Here's a chart from the Department of Agriculture that I used in a post back in August 2014.