The other day I found myself, as I often do, at a conference discussing lagging wages and soaring inequality. There was a lot of interesting discussion. But one thing that struck me was how many of the participants just assumed that robots are a big part of the problem — that machines are taking away the good jobs, or even jobs in general. For the most part this wasn’t even presented as a hypothesis, just as part of what everyone knows.
And this assumption has real implications for policy discussion. For example, a lot of the agitation for a universal basic income comes from the belief that jobs will become ever scarcer as the robot apocalypse overtakes the economy.
So it seems like a good idea to point out that in this case what everyone knows isn’t true. Predictions are hard, especially about the future, and maybe the robots really will come for all our jobs one of these days. But automation just isn’t a big part of the story of what happened to American workers over the past 40 years.
We do have a big problem — but it has very little to do with technology, and a lot to do with politics and power.
Let’s back up for a minute, and ask: What is a robot, anyway? Clearly, it doesn’t have to be something that looks like C-3PO, or rolls around saying “Exterminate! Exterminate!” From an economic point of view, a robot is anything that uses technology to do work formerly done by human beings.
And robots in that sense have been transforming our economy literally for centuries. David Ricardo, one of the founding fathers of economics, wrote about the disruptive effects of machinery in 1821.
These days, when people talk about the robot apocalypse, they don’t usually think of things like strip mining and mountaintop removal. Yet these technologies utterly transformed coal mining: Coal production almost doubled between 1950 and 2000 (it only began falling a few years ago), yet the number of coal miners fell from 470,000 to fewer than 80,000.
Or consider freight containerization. Longshoremen used to be a big part of the scene in major port cities. But while global trade has soared since the 1970s, the share of U.S. workers engaged in “marine cargo handling” has fallen by two-thirds.
So technological change is an old story. What’s new is the failure of workers to share in the fruits of that technological change.
While there have always been some victims of technological progress, until the 1970s rising productivity translated into rising wages for a great majority of workers. Then the connection was broken. And it wasn’t the robots that did it.
What did? There is a growing though incomplete consensus among economists that a key factor in wage stagnation has been workers’ declining bargaining power — a decline whose roots are ultimately political.
Most obviously, the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by a third over the past half century, even as worker productivity has risen 150 percent.
The decline of unions, which covered a quarter of private-sector workers in 1973 but only 6 percent now, may not be as obviously political. But other countries haven’t seen the same kind of decline. What made America exceptional was a political environment deeply hostile to labor organizing and friendly toward union-busting employers.
Consider the case of trucking, which used to be a good job but now pays a third less than it did in the 1970s, with terrible working conditions. What made the difference? De-unionization was a big part of the story.
And these easily quantifiable factors are just indicators of a sustained, across-the-board anti-worker bias in our politics. American workers can and should be getting a much better deal than they are. And to the extent that they aren’t, the fault lies not in our robots, but in our political leaders.