The Robots Are Coming….

I have noted previously that the biggest threat to American workers by far is not outsourcing–it’s automation.

Those of you in my (advanced) age group can attest to the changes we’ve seen: we fill our own gas tanks, computers have decimated the ranks of secretaries, ATM’s and remote deposits via our phones have made visiting the bank unnecessary–and on and on.

Some of the things we’ve automated have actually created new jobs. Most have not, however, and the guy who used to fill your gas tank may not have the skillset needed to service ATM’s.

I wrote a lot about the likely consequences of automation in my last book, and I was prompted to revisit that research when I came across an article in Time Magazine about a robot invented to help us cope with the current pandemic.

Conor McGinn is a roboticist and professor at Trinity College Dublin. McGinn and his colleagues at Trinity’s Robotics and Innovation Lab focus on figuring out how robots can best assist aging individuals in care homes.

The signature product from the lab and its spinoff company, Akara Robotics, is Stevie, a 4-foot 7-inch tall social robot whose primary function is alleviating loneliness. In trials in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere, the robot has been programmed to tell stories, call bingo numbers, lead sing-alongs, and other morale- and community-building exercises in a group care setting.

Its team of engineers have also worked closely with care home staff to understand what additional functions could be added to the robot to boost patient safety. In July 2019, well before the first reports of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, the team began exploring whether Stevie might be able to ward off infections too.

After a few false starts–viola!

The team began drawing up plans for a new robot that would combine the navigational features they’d designed for Stevie with a UV-C light. The robot wouldn’t have any anthropomorphic features, but would be designed to work alongside humans. They would call this one Violet…

Violet is one of many robots deployed or soon to be deployed on the front lines of the global outbreak, navigating hospitals and assisting health workers and patients with a very low risk of spreading the infection.

According to the article, new generations of robots are being developed to “navigate high-risk areas and continually work to sterilize all high-touch surfaces.”

Sounds great. But then…..

A study by Ball State University found that just since 2000, nine out of ten manufacturing workers have been replaced by automation.

In 2018, the Pew Research Center asked approximately 1900 experts to opine on the impact of emerging technologies on employment; half of those questioned predicted the displacement of significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers by robots and digital agents. Many also expressed concern over the likely consequences of that quantity of job losses, predicting that displacements will lead to even larger increases in income inequality, masses of people who are unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

An analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted that ten percent of the jobs in advanced economies will be automated, while scholars at Oxford University forecast that 50% of American jobs are at risk. Obviously, no one can say with confidence how many jobs will be lost, or which workers will sustain those losses, but technologies now in development threaten millions.

Think about this: There are 3.5 million professional truckdrivers in the United States, and another 1.7 million Americans drive taxis, Ubers, buses and delivery vans for a living. Self-driving cars, which are currently being road-tested, could put them all in the ranks of the unemployed.

Think skilled workers are immune? The Brookings Institution’s Tech Tank tells us that between 2011 and 2017, Goldman Sachs replaced 600 desk traders with 200 coding engineers. Even medical professionals are at risk: in 2017, Entilic, a medical start-up, reported that its AI algorithm “outperformed four radiologists in detecting and classifying lung modules as either benign or malignant,”

In 2016, the World Economic Forum projected a total loss of 7.1 million jobs to automation, including jobs in advertising, public relations, broadcasting, law, financial services and health care.

It isn’t just the pandemic that is threatening to upend our world–but among its other consequences,  the pandemic may hasten the process.


Balanced Budgets And Tax Caps

For years, it has been a GOP article of faith that the United States should pass a balanced budget amendment. Here in Indiana, Republican Governor Mitch Daniels was the driving force behind the “constitutionalization” of tax caps–adding a measure to the state’s constitution limiting state and local government’s taxing power.

Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed in Congress, and the federal government retained authority for the massive deficit spending needed to ease what will certainly be a major recession or a depression in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here in Indiana, we weren’t so lucky; Mitch Daniels successfully curried voter favor by decimating the ability of cities to adequately fund services and hobbling the state’s ability to meet unanticipated crises.

The average voter doesn’t recognize the different functions of constitutions and statutes, or understand why specific tax provisions of this sort don’t belong in the former.  Most Hoosiers thought it was a good idea to place tax caps in the state’s charter, making it difficult–if not impossible–to change direction if the need arose. Now, the state of Georgia–which has a similar restriction–is demonstrating just how short-sighted and damaging it is to elect people who are more concerned with politics than good policy.

From Heather Cox Richardson’s daily “Letter,”(no link, but her URL is we learn about an investigation by George Chidi, a Georgia journalist and former staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Chidi examined Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, barbers, nail salons, restaurants, theaters, and massage therapists, among other businesses, next week.

Kemp said the businesses would be required to screen workers for illness, increase sanitation rules, separate workspaces by at least six feet, telework where at all possible, and have staggered shifts. He also said that more restrictive local rules could not override his order.

Kemp told reporters that his concern was to protect small businesses, hurt by the economic shutdown, but Chidi had a different interpretation. “It’s about making sure people can’t file unemployment,” he wrote.

The state’s unemployment fund has about $2.6 billion. The shutdown has made claims skyrocket—Chidi says the fund will empty in about 28 weeks. There is no easy way to replenish the account because Georgia has recently set a limit on income taxes that cannot be overridden without a constitutional amendment. It cannot borrow enough to cover the fund either, because by law Georgia can’t borrow more than 5% of its previous year’s revenue in any year, and any borrowing must be repaid in full before the state can borrow any more.

By ending the business closures, Kemp guarantees that workers can no longer claim they are involuntarily unemployed, and so cannot claim unemployment benefits. Chidi notes that the order did not include banks, software firms, factories, or schools. It covered businesses usually staffed by poorer people that Kemp wants to keep off the unemployment rolls. (Emphasis supplied.)

We already knew that Kemp was despicable; a man for whom the word “ethics” is clearly meaningless–as Secretary of State, he refused to recuse himself and oversaw the Gubernatorial election in which he was a candidate. By throwing out some 50,000+ registrations from African-American voters, he narrowly deprived Stacy Abrams of a victory in that race.

This effort to deprive low-income workers in Georgia of the ability to claim unemployment is equally contemptible, but it is also equally attributable to the restrictive provisions in Georgia’s constitution.

Indiana’s constitution requires a balanced budget. That requirement need not be debilitating–if the state and its subdivisions can raise taxes to meet unanticipated challenges. Thanks to Mitch Daniels, his successors in the Governor’s office are unable to do that. Governor Holcomb thus far seems like a pretty solid guy–a throwback to the kind of Republicans I used to know–so I am hopeful he won’t emulate Georgia’s Kemp.

When rightwing Congress-critters bloviated about a Balanced Budget Amendment, cooler heads pointed to the perils and prevailed. When Republicans in the Indiana statehouse crowed about putting tax caps in the constitution to “protect” taxpayers, warnings by fiscal and tax policy experts were pooh-poohed.

Politics won, sane and informed policy lost.

Isn’t there a song called “Georgia on my mind”?


File Under: We Ain’t Seen Nuthin’ Yet…

A business school colleague of mine recently drew my attention to an article predicting how our lives will change in the next twenty years.

The changes that are predicted are all consequences of technology–mostly existing technology– and they are entirely plausible. If even half of them come to pass, however, we are likely to experience an economic and social upheaval that will far surpass the dislocations of the industrial revolution.

A few of those predictions:

  • Software will disrupt most traditional industries within the next 5-10 years. (We already see this with retailing.)
  •  Online legal advice (already widely available on the internet) will reduce the number of lawyers by 90%–only specialists will remain.
  • Self driving cars will be available in 2018;  by 2020, the entire auto industry will begin to be disrupted. People won’t own personal vehicles; they’ll call a car on the phone, it will show up and drive to the specified destination. (“You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s licence and will never own a car.”) The implications are enormous: fewer accidents will reduce the need for insurance–and the companies that sell it; many car companies will go bankrupt, millions of jobs (truck drivers, taxi drivers, etc.) will disappear. Land used for parking will be redeveloped. There’s much more.
  • Electricity will become incredibly cheap and clean: We will see the true impact of solar production, which has “been on an exponential curve for 30 years.”
  • Companies will introduce a medical device (called the “Tricorder” from Star Trek) that works with your phone, takes your retina scan and your blood sample and analyzes your breath.  It will then analyze 54 biomarkers that identify nearly any disease. It will be inexpensive enough to give everyone on the planet access to world-class medical analysis, nearly for free.
  • 3D printing will be ubiquitous. The price of the cheapest 3D printer went from $18,000 to $400 within 10 years, and over that same timeframe it became 100 times faster. Major shoe companies have already started 3D printing shoes; spare airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports, and the space station now has a printer that eliminates the need to stockpile large amount of spare parts as before. The Chinese have already 3D printed/built a 6-story office building.  By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D printed.

These are just a few of the changes the article lists–there are many more.

It is difficult to envision the combined impact of these technologies; the author predicts that 70-80% of today’s jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be new ones, of course, but it is unlikely that there will be enough new jobs to replace those going the way of the dinosaurs.

During my own lifetime, the pace of change has steadily accelerated. Much of the social and economic dysfunction we are currently experiencing is a direct outgrowth of that change–not just the economic stresses involved, but the disorientation people suffer as cultural attitudes shift and expectations about their future lives are upended.

If there is one thing that’s clear, it is that our current political system is not capable of meeting the challenges we will face. How will ideologues like Paul Ryan and those like him–lawmakers who think unemployed folks can just “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”– react to massive joblessness? What about the “alt-right” bigots who justify their anti-immigrant rhetoric with the claim that the newcomers are taking American jobs? What will those on the left do when they can no longer blame job losses on outsourcing and trade? Where will all these culture warriors turn without their overly-simplified, convenient culprits? And who will they turn on?

And a far, far more important question: how will the fortunate remnant–the still-employed, highly skilled specialists–respond to the needs of the suddenly un- and under-employed? What policy interventions will they support? What sort of social contract will they recognize?

Twenty years isn’t a long time. It’s practically tomorrow.


It’s More Complicated Than That…

H.L. Mencken famously said that for every problem, there’s a solution that’s clear, simple  and wrong.

That’s an observation that has escaped lawmakers and economists for a long time, although in the last several years, many of them have come (grudgingly) to recognize its wisdom.

For a long time, economists predicted human behaviors using a “cost/benefit” framework; incentives were  “profit maximizing” and costs were, well, costs.  Of course, real human beings aren’t so one-dimensional. We don’t behave as the economists predicted, because what constitutes an incentive or disincentive for any particular person cannot be so neatly identified.

It isn’t that we humans don’t act in our own self-interest–we do. It’s just that “self-interest” means different things to different people. Teachers who could make more money in the private sector are rewarded by making a difference in children’s’ lives; lawyers for public-interest organizations forgo substantial monetary rewards but derive immense satisfaction from “doing justice.”

“Value” and “reward” are inescapably subjective.

The incentives to which people respond–what impels someone to work, or to work at this job rather than that one–is often a matter of cultural values and expectations. That’s why the widespread belief that a social safety net creates a “culture of dependency” has always been flawed. People don’t work just for sustenance; they work for cultural acceptance, meaning, self-esteem and personal pride, among other reasons.

A recent cross-national study has recently confirmed the lack of a relationship between the generosity of a country’s social safety net and the diligence with which unemployed people look for work. (It also found that receipt of social benefits didn’t make people happier or more satisfied. Depending on the kindness of strangers simply keeps folks fed and/or housed, not cheerful.)

In other words, feeding people who’ve lost their jobs doesn’t make them stop looking for work, and providing minimal support to those who are down and out doesn’t make us suckers.

It might, however, make us better humans.


What If? What Then?

Let me start this post with a caveat: I am not an economist. I don’t play one on TV. At most, I’m a reasonably well-informed consumer of economic news.

That news, however, is troubling. Following the various indicators could give you whiplash–housing may be recovering, but unemployment claims are up. No, unemployment claims are down, job creation’s up, but retail is down. No, retail is up this month, but…Well, you get the point.  If the economy were a car, it would be stuck in low gear.

There are as many theories about what ails the American economy as there are pundits and candidates for office. It’s too much government spending or not enough stimulus or the meltdown in the EU or GOP efforts to win the Presidency by delaying the recovery. And all of these  analyses clearly point to contributing factors.

But what if what we are seeing is the start of a long-predicted “structural change” brought about by technology? What if Europe calms down and we get past November only to discover that employment still doesn’t return to previous levels? And since I’m playing “what if” here, what if instead of the toxic political finger-pointing and infantile blaming that characterizes our current politics, we had a serious discussion about the appropriate response to that structural change?

Persistent high unemployment would present a huge challenge to social stability and economic health. Fewer people with money to spend would depress markets; more people needing social welfare support would stress the federal budget and make it more difficult to reduce the deficit. The existence of a persistent underclass would generate resentments and social unrest at a level that would dwarf today’s Occupy movement.

It seems to me–again, an admitted economic amateur–that such a scenario would require government to become an employer of last resort. Surely, hiring people to mow parks, clean streets, assist in classrooms and do similar jobs would be preferable to welfare, both for those being employed and society at large. The tasks being performed would improve the quality of life in our cities and towns, and productive employment would provide people with both self-respect and money to spend in the market.

Right now, of course, the rhetoric is all about heading in the opposite direction: laying off even badly needed government workers and pooh-poohing their value. If we are seeing the start of structural change, it’s going to be awfully hard to turn that tanker around.