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lunch eating robots redux

May 28, 2012

I am writing these notes as preparation for a 10 minute talk I expect to give at Buffalo Barcamp #5 on May 30, 2012. (It is unlikely I will say exactly what you see here; it is unlikely I will include every point I have here; it is likely I will add something not included here.)

As the election draws closer, we are likely to hear more and more about the economy, jobs, the trade deficit, taxes, the federal budget deficit, who is to blame for our problems, and how to fix all of our economic troubles with one easy action. I will be more and more tempted to close my ears and mind because most of this will be overly simplistic and very misleading. While we do have some significant economic problems, neither the causes nor the solutions are simple and easy to implement. Complex systems are difficult to diagnose and repair. I don’t intend this to be a political talk; I would like to point out a couple things we should be thinking about.

For some, jobs are hard to find right now – especially well-paying and rewarding jobs. At the same time, prospective employers are complaining qualified employees are hard to find. Why is this? More than one thing is behind it. Many of our difficulties result from two things: the United States is not alone in the world and there is a long term trend to replace human labor with the work of machines. We need to adjust our thinking to deal with these.

The United States is not alone in the world. As recently as one hundred years ago, the oceans separated us from the rest of the world and it was easy to view our economy as a distinct and separate entity.  When World War II ended in 1945, The manufacturing capabilities of most, if not all, European and Asian countries had been bombed out of existence. Thanks to those oceans, our plants were intact. Thanks to that war, there was a ready market here and abroad for anything we could produce. There was also a tremendous pent up demand as a result of five or more years of deprivation. The good times rolled for American Corporations and both management and labor seemed to think this would last forever. This really did not catch up with us in a significant manner until the 1970s and 1980s.

There are plenty of different ideas about why we have a significant trade deficit and how it might be rectified. I wanted to mention it, but I will now resist the temptation to go on about it at great length and move on to the main topic for this blog and talk. The United States is still a major manufacturer; we are first or second in the world depending on who does the counting and how they do it. Also, it is likely that even if all of the manufacturing that has gone overseas came back, all the jobs that have disappeared would not.

There is a long term trend here. In the late 1800s and into the 1900s, mechanization and automation replaced a lot of workers  in agriculture. After some troubled times, more and more people found work in manufacturing and in services. In the later 1900s and on into the 2000s, mechanization and automation have been eliminating jobs in manufacturing. A lot of other jobs have disappeared as well. I can remember when people were employed as elevator operators and attendants who pumped gas for you, to give a couple homely examples.

The evidence suggests this will continue.  In one of myrecent blogs, Can we stop robots from eating our lunch, I noted that recently, Farhod Manjoo authored a series of articles at slate.com based on the theme, Will Robots Steal Your Job. He looks at the possibilities for automated pharmacists, doctors, writers, lawyers, and scientists and his findings are sobering. A recent CNN article, Could a computer write this story, tells us that Chicago-based company Narrative Science has set out to prove that computers can tell stories good enough for a fickle human audience and it has created a program that takes raw data and turns it into a story, a system that’s worked well enough for the company to earn its own byline on Forbes.com. An Inside Higher Ed article, Score One for the Robo-Tutors, tells us that in experiments at six public universities, students assigned randomly to statistics courses that relied heavily on “machine-guided learning” software — with reduced face time with instructors — did just as well, in less time, as their counterparts in traditional, instructor-centric versions of the courses. Take my word for this – I have many more articles and links I could cite here, but I’ll curb the urge to go on and on.

The direct labor content of goods and services is decreasing and the evidence suggests it will continue to decrease. If a market economy would work as perfectly as some economics texts suggest, one of two things would happen;  we’d all have to work less to enjoy our present standard of living or we’d all be able to enjoy more goods and services. Both things have partially happened; 60 and 80 hour weeks are gone for most of us and we do have many things our parents didn’t dream of.

But, as has been the case in the past, this transition isn’t happening as smoothly as we’d like to see. Some people are benefiting; others are being left behind. A Bloomberg Businessweek article, The Recovery Squeezes the Middle Class, observes that  “There’s no better time to be a talented entrepreneur,” [but,] “There’s no worse time to be a middle-class person without special skills.”

Is there a solution to this? What is it? It may be that things have to work out slowly and somewhat painfully as has been the case in the past. There may be some things we can do.

Probably the most important thing is to understand what is happening. The global economy, the housing bubble, and the fiscal crisis are all things that need our attention. That’s not enough. We also need to understand that the ways goods and services are produced are changing and the ways the fruits of work are distributed may also need to change. In recent times, many people who still have jobs are working harder and harder while many others who are not working at all rely on unemployment insurance or welfare for survival.

It’s likely not possible to simply reduce hours for the employed, move the unemployed into those positions, and adjust wages appropriately, but we do need policies that will encourage this over the long term.

Education clearly seems to be a significant part of the long term solution. This works two ways. More people need to be appropriately educated to fill the so-called knowledge jobs. We could also do a much better job of preparing people for hands on kinds of jobs such as plumbing and drywall. We should also recognize that education can better prepare people to take advantage of any increased leisure. Finally, people need to be better prepared for a lifetime of learning.

While this seems a little bit of a dream, we need to understand that we are not dealing with a simplistic case of productive workers and lazy bums who won’t work. I could go on about this at greater length, but I don’t have time. My goal is to get you thinking about it.

Several of my other blog entries deal with this in one way or another.

The slides for the presentation are here.

© Charlie Wertz, May 2012

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4 Comments
  1. Chris permalink

    Excellent points. Wish I had been able to see the talk at BarCamp! I’ve made some similar observations to my Dad, who is a die hard conservative, while I am more middle of the road. He was railing against Obama and how all our jobs are gone, etc., and I pointed out that not all the jobs are gone. I get frequent job offers, really good ones. And my circle of peers has no shortage of work either. It’s a keen observation that having no particular skill set related to a knowledge economy and not being able to learn and change is what is killing some people, because those jobs are flourishing while others are decreasing. The sooner that becomes common knowledge and we stop pining about the “good old days” the better off we’ll be.

  2. Greg Ross permalink

    Charlie, excellent post. I’d be interested to see you continue your thought and describe what you see as some potential solutions to the problem (even though you stated that there are no silver bullet solutions to this)

  3. Charlie Wertz permalink

    Greg, I sure wish I knew a magic answer. I can only reiterate a couple things. I think knowing what is happening and not being led astray by the BS is important. I think education for the new world is important; this includes math/science and computing, thinking and problem solving and also a lot more emphasis on appropriate vocational education – that last thing being something many have mistakenly looked down on.

  4. Greg Ross permalink

    I agree with you 100%. I also believe that there should be a renewed focus on vocational education, especially in the technical trades. It seems like there are a shortage of skilled workers for the niche specialized manufacturers, and even with various machinists and repair people.
    I even see automation significantly effecting the world of IT these days in large organizations. People are looking at converged infrastructure, IT self service portals, automated server provisioning, etc, to eliminate the need for IT operations people to perform common tasks that don’t add a lot of value to the business. Things like automatically creating email accounts, provisioning virtual servers, deprovisioning servers when developers are done using the compute and storage resources, etc, are starting to be automated through work flow and orchestration tools. Some companies are eliminating head count as a result, but many are actually re-purposing people to focus on other roles that deliver more value to the organization (like cloud architects, various analyst positions, etc)

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