Allan Golombek: Technology’s Creative Destruction Is Pro-Worker

Fears of AI seem to be everywhere. One of its favorite hang-outs is Amazon.com, where several books such as Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots   predict the end of work. They follow a well-tread path. Twenty-two years ago, Jeremy Rifkin wrote The End of Work. Almost immediately, we entered one of the greatest periods of job creation in history. The end of work is something we never have to fear. We won’t run out of it until we run out of things we want.

Jobs Are Just Things We Do

Jobs are just tasks we carry out to produce and obtain the things we desire. We will never run out of consumer desires, no matter how many robots or other technologies we create. When technologies take care of some of our needs, they just give us the opportunity to pursue others, an opportunity we grasp eagerly.

How we earn our money depends on how we spend it.

Much of the angst seems to be over the likely lifespan of jobs that currently exist. But the goal shouldn’t be to preserve the jobs we have today. It should be to perform the jobs that will actually be needed in the future. Too many people seem to want to somehow combine 1950s jobs with a 21st-century lifestyle. But the reason we enjoy the lifestyle we have today is because we perform today’s jobs. To be more precise, we perform the jobs we do now to produce the goods and services that we want and need now, not in the past.

How we earn our money depends on how we spend it. As we progress, we will continue to shed some jobs and create others, tailoring what we do for a living to how we prefer to live and what technologies can do for us. In the 1860s, almost half of all Americans worked on the farm. Mechanical harvesting, hybrid corn, automation of the egg production process, and other technologies to bolster agricultural productivity eliminated the jobs of a great many people. But they didn’t eliminate the constantly expanding list of people’s wants beyond food, not by a long shot.

Freeing Up Labor

By freeing up labor, farm technologies gave us the opportunity to meet other needs. At the same time, there were tens of millions of farmers across the United States, there were just tens of thousands of physicians. Today, there more than 10 times as many, hundreds of thousands of medical doctors. There couldn’t be that many physicians if more people were still tied up working the farms. When technologies eliminate some jobs, it is as though we are crossing some tasks off our to-do list. When we do that, we don’t sit around twiddling our thumbs. We do other things.

When technologies eliminate jobs in one place, they often spawn them elsewhere.

When technologies eliminate some tasks, it gives us the opportunity to broaden our horizons. In 1900, about 1 in every 20 Americans in the workforce was employed by a railroad. The invention of the automobile and the airplane freed up a lot of labor — and freed our world to pursue new wants and needs. Today, almost 1 in every 20 Americans is an engineer or scientist, according to the Congressional Research Service. If 5 percent of the workforce — about eight million people today — were still employed by the railroads, there might not be enough people available to produce all the technological advances engineering and science generate.

When technologies eliminate jobs, they generally spawn new ones. In recent times, we’ve seen new technologies visibly and rapidly disrupt labor markets. Because of the Internet, we no longer need as many travel agents, bookstore employees, and store clerks. Instead, we need apps developers, web designers and webmasters. Because of video streaming and digital movie channels, we no longer need tens of thousands of video store clerks. So we have more people available to perform personal care services, provide telephone technical support, and work at customer fulfillment centers for internet-based companies.

When technologies eliminate jobs in one place, they often spawn them elsewhere. ATMs have diminished the need for bank tellers at some branches. But because fewer people are required to staff a branch, banks open more of them in less populous areas.

Since the dawn of modern capitalism, we have been constantly engaged in a process of replacing one technology with another. But we don’t look back in sorrow at the jobs we lost such chimney sweeps, milkmen, and ice men. Instead, we take for granted the conveniences we enjoy. And we perform the jobs they make possible.

Reprinted from RealClearMarkets

Allan Golombek


Allan Golombek

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

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11 Responses to Allan Golombek: Technology’s Creative Destruction Is Pro-Worker

  1. Joe

    And when robots do all the jobs – what does that free us up to do?

  2. Piett

    We’ll need humans to fly Vipers to shoot down the robots trying to nuke our cities.

    Or, if we fail in that regard, to crew a Battlestar leading a fleet of civilian ships in search of a new world.

  3. greg

    ‘But because fewer people are required to staff a branch, banks open more of them in less populous areas.’ – In what world does that happen? I’ve only seen branches get closed down to maximise profits.
    ‘Today, there more than 10 times as many, hundreds of thousands of medical doctors.’ – and there is multiple times the amount of chronic illness largely because of more doctors and technology. That’s “progress” for you.

  4. max

    There is fear that computerization will produce mass unemployment over the next 30 years. The computers will do the work of hundreds of millions of workers, leaving no jobs for these displaced workers.
    One implication is this, we are told: the federal government will have to put them on welfare. Otherwise, they will starve. They will not be able to compete with robots and software.
    I am curious. Who will pay the taxes to do this? Robots?
    No, no, no: we must tax the rich.
    I am curious. How will they be rich if there is no one able to afford to buy their products?
    https://www.garynorth.com/public/13045.cfm

    Here is a headline: This AI expert says that a robot economy will force us to give people unconditional free money. The article is in Business Insider.

    There are lots of articles like this one these days. (Are they being written by commie algorithms?)

    It rests on the universal assumption of all socialist thought, namely, the assumption that nature imposes no inherent limits. Therefore, scarcity is the product of evil institutions — institutions based on private ownership. “Property is theft,” announced Proudhon. So, socialists conclude, the state should steal it back from the thieves and give it to everyone. This has been the socialist party line for 200 years.
    https://www.garynorth.com/public/15285.cfm

  5. RobK

    I think over all the author is correct….but it’s not that simple. The West’s fecundity is tending to fall with less off-spring and later in life. The developing world is burgeoning with population and a relative shortage of capital. A lot of technologies only thrive with high capital. This does tend to favour global corporations and centralist control governance, at least on the face of it.

  6. RobK

    Perhaps machine code will be the universal language to bring the people of the earth together. (random thought bubble, not to be taken seriously)

  7. True Aussie

    Golombek himself is deadwood. His job is nothing but a parasitical existence on hardworking people. There is no need to pay him to write trit opinion pieces when equally skilled hobbyists will do it for free.

  8. It’s true that the farmers hand didn’t go hungry when the tractor was invented, but that’s because his wife could take on some baby sitting or washing and his kid could do a paper round or make and sell lemonade to help the family make ends meet. That’s not possible in an over regulated market like today.
    It’s not a coincidence that the biggest growth industries today are the new tech industries that governments haven’t had the time nor the nous to interfere with, but that’s coming too.
    Add the fact that welfare crushes incentives to be inventive, we can’t just compare then to now.

    I think what will happen is that we will tax capital because labour will be such a tiny percentage of production. Those who own capital (the machines and robots etc) will be taxed, and the others will receive welfare (but it will be called “universal income”) to sit at home and have babies and consume.
    Or some variant of the above.

  9. jupes

    At least this bloke’s head is only on a slight tilt.

    That’s an improvement on that other idiot that Sinc allows to post here occasionally.

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  11. Kneel

    “I think what will happen is that we will tax capital because labour will be such a tiny percentage of production.”

    Indeed. But that doesn’t mean taxes aren’t available, or that free markets don’t reign.

    Consider a hunter-gatherer society – no-one “creates” the vegetable and animal resources that such a society consumes. Rather, there is an ecology that exists and is self-sustaining. Such a society “harvests” the existing ecology for it’s resources, in the process creating selective pressure on the ecology (the more humans that eat a particular fruit, the more widely the seeds of the fruit-bearing tree are spread, and so on). Not all “services” provided by the ecology are directly used by the humans, but are never the less a useful niche in the ecology (eg plant pollination). Humans neither know nor care the exact details of the entire ecology.

    So, if we have a robot “ecology”, producing goods and services of value, and that has a “selective pressure” of a “tax” based on resource usage and “paid” by the robots by them selling to humans, and that “tax” is distributed as a “Universal Basic Income”, anyone living in such a society would not technically need to work, although many would choose to do so. Their work would likely involve “hand crafted” and “old fashioned” goods and services, or services where the customer actually WANTS a human to interact with, or to do the work – perhaps because humans are at that time better at that particular job, or perhaps as a way to display their wealth or social status. The robot ecology would continually evolve as human needs and wants change, as well as having the continuing pressure to produce more for less. So too would what constitutes “sustainable” work for humans.

    I am not convinced that a UBI is currently what we should have, however it is worth considering the sort of process listed above and how we get there from here. So it is certainly a concept worth discussing.

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