TCS Daily

Kent Brockman on Unemployment

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 12, 2003 12:00 AM

A while back, I wrote a column here arguing that outsourcing was likely to become an issue in the 2004 Presidential elections. And it looks as if I was right. Senator and Presidential candidate John Edwards, fresh from the rock-the-vote debates (and guest-blogging at tech-favorite Larry Lessig's site) writes:


As happens almost everywhere I go, I got a question about jobs. And that got me thinking about the many connections between technology and jobs. Everyone knows how the tech boom of the late nineties created wealth for Americans. But today, we're seeing a very different trend: high-tech jobs moving overseas to countries like India. In every state where I campaign, I meet people who feel like they did everything they were supposed to do -- like staying in school and getting high-level skills -- and yet they are still losing work as their jobs leave

As Andy Grove highlighted in a thoughtful speech a few weeks ago, there is a real risk that key elements of the technology sector will soon leave America the way other industries have. We can't afford to let that happen.


If you scroll down to read the comments below Edwards' post, you'll see that he got a (generally) favorable response, though there were quite a few skeptics. Among the skeptics, I suppose, is former Clinton Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who writes that it's not just the United States losing manufacturing jobs -- everyone is losing manufacturing jobs. And we're losing them to machines:

All over the world, factories are becoming more efficient. They've installed new equipment and utilized new technology. And that often means fewer jobs. Market reforms have also played a role. In
China, new modern factories are replacing large, inefficient state-run plants. The result is that even as China produces more goods than ever before, millions of factory workers have been laid off.


The reason is more, and better, machines, leading Reich to conclude: "The issue we really ought to be talking is what jobs Americans, and everyone else, will be able to find when machines are able to do just about everything."

To paraphrase Kent Brockman, I, for one, welcome our new robot employees. Er, just so long as they don't take my job away. But what jobs would there be, in a world in which everything is done by machines?

The first question, of course, is whether we even need to worry. People have fretted about automation ending employment -- and ushering in an era of too much wealth and leisure -- for a century. Yet, somehow, people have remained employed, and while we're a lot richer than we used to be, a surplus of leisure isn't a problem for most of us.

But soon, perhaps, machines really will be able to make pretty much everything, cheaply, on demand, and with little human involvement. Nanotechnology may offer such a possibility. What kinds of jobs would survive? Two kinds, I think. The obvious kinds are those needing the human touch: Massage therapy, perhaps -- though even here, machines are making inroads that can't be ignored. Teaching and law seem fairly safe (am I just fooling myself, though?) and so does acting -- er, unless it's taken over by synthespians. Prostitution? Machines again. I won't link you to those sites, as this is a family webzine, but trust me, there's competition there, too. (Here's an article from Salon that should be work-safe. There's even a word, "prosthetute," from Greg Bear's science fiction novel, Slant.) Still, I suspect that a lot of jobs that could theoretically be taken by machines won't be, because people will still prefer the human version; vibrators, after all, haven't put an end to dating, and automats didn't replace restaurants with table service. But how many of those jobs will there be?

The other kind of job is more significant, and more likely to survive: the kind of job that hasn't been invented yet. After all, I'm an "internet columnist" -- a job that wasn't really in existence ten years ago. Despite the fact that no linotype operators are employed in the production of this column, it's not really true that unemployment has resulted from the introduction of new communications technologies. Jobs don't so much disappear as they change. If nanotechnology takes over manufacturing, the importance of things like design, marketing, and sales will probably increase.

Of course, at an arbitrarily high level of technology, everything can be done better by machines than by people. By that point, however, I suspect that people will be adopting some machine characteristics of their own: uploaded minds, computer-chip implants, etc., even as machines become more human-like, making the whole man/machine distinction somewhat beside the point. That raises its own set of problems of course (and problems, and problems again). But at least we'll have jobs...



The Player Piano
Of course, the great novel to read for the concerned is Kurt Vonnegut's post WWII, "The Player Piano." It's a fine read, and you'll love what happens at the end!

Let's go back to fundamentals.
How is a job created, anyway?

It starts with a human need and we humans have unlimited needs. The question is what we can pay for, because we have limited funds.

Some entrepreneur decides that he can benefit by supplying a need. He hires himself as his first employee. If he is not prevented from doing so by the realities of the market, his competition or governmental interference, then he profits from the transaction. He stays in business.

If his market expands through consumer demand, he adds to his work force by adding his family members, associates and then strangers. If he is not overloaded with rules, regulations and taxes, then he benefits.

Since a business needs constant care, no entrepreneur wants to have his operation far away from himself or his customers. But, sometimes the comparative advantages of other places can induce him to manufacture where there are low restrictions, regulations and taxes.

America was long a beneficiary of such a comparative advantage because goods could be manufactured here than at a higher cost elsewhere. Trade Union extortion, excessive employee benefits, onerous environmental or business regulations and high taxes can make it impossible to make or sell anything. Sometimes, a company has a choice between going out of business or manufacturing over seas.

The issue is not about the jobs, themselves. If the employees wanted the jobs bad enough, they would bid their wages down until the rates were comparable to those overseas.

The problem is one of power where the political interests will not let the market place work. They cause the jobs to flee, but they blame this on someone else. Anyone else.

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